It's the resurgence of convergence

Jim BartholdProbably more than a few years ago (time flies when you're having fun) convergence was hotter than dinner and drinks at telecommunications trade shows. Every vendor, figuring every service provider was interested, was touting how to merge voice, video and data onto a platform that would tear down the back office pyramids, provide a seamless consumer experience and, of course, most enticingly, make service offerings sticky.

Over time, the term became more despised than "information superhighway" and "cable customer service" because, like those features, it didn't mean anything to consumers who were finding that just remotely programming the DVR was a challenge, let alone turning on lights, air conditioning or heat in a residence as they were promised would be possible. And forget about starting the oven. You had a better chance of starting a revolution in a Third World country than you did of starting the pot roast.

The problem with convergence is not the concept, it's that it is (or was) just a white board theory with little foundation in reality. The really fortunate thing for the telecom industry, although it may not think so, was that this time people understood that true convergence was years away and even the moneylenders on Wall Street didn't heave sacks of money at an idea with no immediate return.

This brings us to last week when convergence again reared its head. Cedar Point Communications unveiled for America what the Germans already saw at ANGA: a Visual Communications Suite (VCS) that promised to bring telecom features to the TV screen or, as Cedar Point marketing VP Jeff Walker hyped it, "support converged communications ... a number of different features that integrate together to provide a fused set of services that can be accessed across multiple different platform types."

Amid all the jargon, Walker provided another gem. Caller ID on TV, he said, was "table stakes"--a starting point for all other converged applications. That seemed like a reasonable suggestion, since DirecTV has been offering caller ID on TV to me for a couple years and now that I have Comcast phone I think I'd have the same capability if I bothered to find it and turn it on. That, in itself, is another problem; the feature's there but the consumer doesn't know it. But that's also another story.

Cedar Point's product announcement was followed by one from Verizon, whose FiOS TV is supposedly the most advanced network with the latest gadgetry. Seems FiOS TV was finally getting around to officially launching converged telephony features via FiOS Digital Phone. Probably because I have properties in two areas that Verizon has ignored with FiOS (and neither is in Baltimore) I had no idea that the telco-supported TV service was lagging in this regard.

When a news release touting Verizon's Enhanced FiOS Digital Voice Service hit the wires, I was stunned. Here was a telephone company saying that it was one-upping cable on converged telecom features.

"FiOS Digital Voice gives customers greater customization, flexibility and control over how, when and where they communicate," said Eric Bruno, vice president for Verizon consumer product management and development in the release, sounding a lot like Cedar Point's Walker.

Somehow I always thought that a telephone company would have more and better telephone features than a cable company. Last week apparently proved me wrong.

Related articles:
Cedar Point and cable operator testing converged visual communications applications
Demonstrating their ANGA: U.S. cable vendors woo buyers at European show
Verizon chasing cable with FiOS Digital Voice service introduction