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A Communication Fabric for Today’s Omni-Channel Digital Experience

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(Source: Pixabay)

Why is the Communication Fabric important?

Contemporary digital experiences include the ability to communicate via multiple channels such as voice, text, web, chat, and video.  It’s becoming increasingly common for consumers to begin a transaction in one channel and switch to a different channel before completing their business, especially in e-commerce.

The ability to leverage more than one channel is known as multi-channel communication.  While this capability gives the consumer a choice for how they want to engage, it does not necessarily provide the continuity they desire.  The ability to switch or use multiple channels while preserving the context of the transaction is a capability of omni-channel applications.  These applications maintain context awareness, provide a richer experience for the consumer, and are typically delivered via a unified communication (UC) platform. 

Enterprises have traditionally adopted UC platforms as an evolution of their on-premise voice system. (Unified Communications may also include Contact Center as a Service platforms in this context.) Whether the UC platform is on-premise or a cloud service, it’s rarely interoperable with other services while maintaining context switching awareness.  Today’s consumer experiences often leverage disparate systems to create robust solutions and are built with a combination of cloud providers and custom-developed applications.  The lack of interoperability between these channels and providers creates a fragmented customer experience.  According to Gartner, there are over 60 different UC vendors in North America alone.  Integrating these capabilities while maintaining context-sensitivity and a quality consumer experience throughout the journey is a goal for today’s biggest enterprises.

The Solution

What is the Communication Fabric?

The Communication Fabric is a converged voice and data network developed to connect disparate cloud providers and on-premise or custom-built UC functionality.  It links multiple channel communications across an enterprise and its partners. The Communication Fabric integrates various voice, chat, video, text, and data services built by enterprises, their partners, and third parties. It tracks the state of the consumers’ sessions and ensures quality, performance, and continuity of experience throughout the journey. 

The Communication Fabric benefits developers by making it easy to incorporate and monitor their services in a standard manner.  Because it tracks the consumer engagement across numerous providers, the Communication Fabric enables the recording and replay of the consumer’s journey where appropriate.

This will improve speed to market by reducing dependence on a single UC or CCaaS vendor and enabling integration of custom functionality across all channel options.  Another advantage is the ability to create a consistent and ubiquitous brand experience regardless of channel.

The Challenge

Why doesn’t this exist already?

Unlike the phone system, which can seamlessly connect voice calls between handsets built by different manufacturers, there isn’t a standard for connecting all the other channels.  For example, today we can’t simply connect a native video call between an Android phone and iPhone.  Similarly, we can’t be on the same conference call using both Zoom and Teams.  Manufacturers of UC and CCaaS platforms haven’t been incented to open their systems for inclusion of competitor’s products and services to coexist. Often, they require full channel ownership to provide minimal context-awareness.

The lack of compatibility and interconnect standards create a challenge to leverage multiple vendors in a solution.  An additional hurdle is not being able to transfer sessions across multiple services while monitoring and modeling the user experience within a service provider’s cloud. 

Tech Talk

How does the Communication Fabric work?

The Communication Fabric leverages several networking components, protocols, software-defined capabilities, and practices.  At the heart of the converged network are Session Border Controllers (SBCs).  These are used to manage session routing and some security. 

The voice and data traffic reside in the Session Initiation Protocol or SIP stream, where converged information such as signaling and payload exist. This is critical almost anytime voice and video are paired with data elements.  Taking advantage of protocols such as SIP enables the ability to refer the caller from provider to provider while maintaining control and insight to the session.  The SIP protocol also enables recording of the session via SIPREC and is indexed with other partner recordings and logs to capture the full consumer experience.

There are four key components that make up the Communication Fabric:

  • Bring-Your-Own-Carrier: A telephony carrier interface allowing ownership, control, and routing of 800 numbers.  Session Border Controllers (SBCs), along with other communication appliances, are key to managing the interface. Leveraging telephony carriers is also fundamental to the network by providing wide-area connectivity.  
  • SIP Stack: It also leverages the SBCs and provides for converged ability to send sessions between solution providers while maintaining control and integrity.  SIP REFER and SIP UUI (user to user information) are the key methods employed for this purpose. 
  • Interconnect: This is a suite of APIs that help normalize integration to the Communication Fabric from various Omni-channel solution providers.  This also permits custom developed solutions to integrate directly and provide and pass context between channels.
  • Journey Modeling: The ability to monitor, model, and replay the consumer experience through the Communication Fabric. SIPREC is the protocol to record the sessions and is leveraged with other logging to provide insight to the consumer journey.

Consumer experience leaders have outperformed laggards in the stock market by 3:1, according to an ROI Study done by Watermark Consulting, a U.S.-based customer experience advisory firm. The value of the Communication Fabric to provide a cohesive and a consistently branded engagement is essential for today’s Omni-channel digital experiences.

Rick Belsky is vice president and senior director of technology at Liberty Mutual Insurance.