IT and Business Insights for SMB Solution Providers

At Long Last, Here Comes Channel Convergence

The much-anticipated fusion of the IT, telephony, and audiovisual channels appears finally to be materializing. By Erik Sherman

For years, experts have been predicting a future in which a single set of partners satisfies most customers’ IT, telecom, and audiovisual needs. And for just as long, that so-called “channel convergence” has failed to materialize.

“These changes are happening way slower than I had ever thought,” says Darren Bibby, program vice president of software channels and alliances research at analyst firm IDC. “We thought in 2006 that we’d see a completely different channel by now and it clearly hasn’t happened.”

Don’t write convergence off just yet, however. After a long wait, telltale signs are surfacing that the mythic merging of voice, video, and IT providers into one big channel may finally be at hand.

One-Stop Shops
Credit a parallel merging of IT, telephony, and A/V infrastructure for that shift. Businesses are increasingly using IP networks to transmit not only data, but voice and video too.

That has at least some IT, telecom, and audiovisual specialists beginning to roll out converged service offerings. For example, Nicholas Hoague and Ray Lund, co-owners of Lakewood, Colo.-based OnePointSync LLC, both share a background as traditional IT VARs. Yet partnering with hosted infrastructure vendor Kerio Technologies Inc., of San Jose, Calif., now allows them to offer their clients not only email, collaboration, and mobility services, but VoIP as well.

“I can walk in and say, ‘Here are the four products for your fundamental communications,’” Hoague says. “A lot of our customers were tired of the finger-pointing between companies,” adds Lund. “They love having that one-stop shop.”

Longtime telephony partners, meanwhile, are making similar moves into IT management. “When Voice over IP first became available, we started to promote it and quickly found that we couldn’t effectively sell the product without being involved in someone’s network,” says William Slappey, marketing manager for Slappey Communications Inc., a telecommunications and IT provider based near Birmingham, Ala. “That more or less dragged us into the world of IT.” Over time, the company began taking care of network management for more and more of its customers until managed IT services became one of its primary product offerings.

Pressure from customers deluged by promotions for bundled voice, video, and data packages is making such stories more and more common, observes Dan Foster, president of business markets for Pleasanton, Calif.-based data and telecom service provider MegaPath Corp. “You have folks like Comcast blasting the airways,” he says. “It’s almost impossible to buy services without a bundle.” Especially when buying bundles is often significantly less costly than purchasing IT, telephony, and A/V a la carte, Foster adds.

Mixing Oil and Water
So why aren’t more specialized providers covering all three customer needs? Blame the “oil and water” nature of their cultures, according to Larry Walsh, president and CEO of The 2112 Group, a channel advisory firm based in Port Washington, N.Y. Computers, telephones, and A/V grew up independently, so at present few service providers have expertise in all three realms. “Real convergence, where you have holistic practices where you build end-to-end solutions for IT and telephone, is not happening yet,” Walsh says.

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