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BT, Cisco to build global hosted unified communications service

British Telecommunications and Cisco Systems Inc. announced a global hosted IP unified communications service that includes building new data centers in Chicago and Manhattan to supplement operations in London.

Rollout of the service, now offered in the U.K., will extend to the U.S. and countries in Europe, the Middle East and Africa next year, followed by Asian-Pacific countries, said John Blake, head of hosted IP telephony evolution for BT, in a telephone interview. He said the two U.S. data centers will be a priority for next year but didn't provide a timeline.

BT already offers MPLS (Multiprotocol Label Switching) networks in 170 countries on which the IP unified communications services will function, giving BT a competitive advantage over U.S.-based carriers that offer unified communications (UC) services, such as AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications, Blake added.

A hosted service will appeal to businesses because of the economic downturn, Blake said. “Business haven't the money to invest in new technology, but they desperately need new technology,” he said.

The service represents the first time BT has offered such capabilities outside of the U.K., and Cisco will build and operate it, said Blake and Steve Slattery, vice president of the IP communications business unit at Cisco.

Both companies declined to discuss details of the partnership, although BT has worked with Cisco technology since 2000 and considers the hosted system “taking the relationship to the next level,” Blake said.

Slattery said “the value of the deal is unlimited,” adding that the available pipeline of customers who already want UC hosted services numbers in the “hundreds of thousands.”

The bulk of the networking gear used in the service will be from Cisco, with Cisco's UC Manager products at the core, Slattery said.

Unified communications covers a wide range of technologies that combine, or unify, applications such as instant messaging with presence awareness technology. Presence awareness refers to the ability to determine whether a person in another city is available via IM, phone or videoconference. In Cisco's case, WebEx collaboration and conference calling, and SIP-enabled functions are part of the service.

An advantage of working with Cisco is the ability to integrate UC functions with Microsoft Office Communications Server, Blake said. That way, Microsoft instant messaging can be combined with Cisco softphone applications, he said.

BT said the U.K.'s National Health Service already uses BT's hosted service for a broadband network called N3, which is used by 1.3 million workers. The service has resulted in free network-based calls and cheaper mobile-phone connections between medical sites, BT said in a statement.

An official at the National Health Service said in a statement that the N3 hosted services have nearly offset the cost of renting IP phones because the cost of calls has dropped about 20%.

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