Tech Watch: Plenty of potential in fixed-mobile convergence

The outlook for fixed-mobile convergence in the enterprise is good, but there are a few obstacles to be cleared before it takes off.

Fixed-mobile convergence (FMC) is one of those technologies that, rather than being invented, productised, marketed and shipped in a package that's easy to explain and deliver to customers, is oozing its way into the IT market as a technique or service instead.

In the process it's creating -- or consolidating -- what will turn out to be a market worth more than US$46 billion by 2010, according to a recent report by Infonetics Research. While the growth potential and time scales vary, other analyst companies have high expectations as well -- Insight Research predicts enterprise FMC spending will double every year until 2012, but the number is currently so low that the market won't be impressive until 2010.

Fixed-mobile convergence is the concept of combining wired and wireless networks into a seamless whole. More specifically, it's come to mean the ability to link mobile networks and internal WiFi networks so customers can switch seamlessly from a mobile network onto a wireless network as Voice over IP (VoIP).

Despite the rosy outlook for fixed-mobile convergence, the path to it is not obstacle-free. There are two major technical approaches to FMC, but neither is easy to implement or easily compatible with the other. And customers and channel companies are still working on getting over an earlier hurdle -- wired VoIP and Voice over Wireless LAN (VoWLAN) networks.

Some stakeholders, however, are investigating consolidation. "We're beginning to see some interest [in FMC] and to guide some of that decision process," said Doug Fink, executive vice president of united communications at integrator Calence . "We do a lot of strategy work on convergence migrations. Today that process is in the stage where you're protecting your investment. The infrastructure pieces are there today, and we have to enable that, so [customers] can do that down the road without a major forklift upgrade."

VoWLAN is making inroads on its own, though, in ways that VoIP hasn't, and which may presage a shorter adoption cycle for fixed-mobile convergence than analysts expect.

"We have a lot of midmarket customers who are eager to embrace wireless [voice]," said Scott Faxon, regional vice president for IP telephony integrator Digitel. "There's a lot of price pressure in a lot of those markets, and it offers some relief in some cases."

Customers with below-average access to Internet infrastructure, and sometimes even mobile networks, are also eager for wireless LAN and wireless voice networks in order to expand their own access to the few broadband drop points available.

"[Those customers] struggle to get Internet access because of their geographies, and the Internet companies don't have the incentive to provide the access," Faxon said.

The business case for FMC

Shifting a mobile call to an internal IP network would save business customers millions of dollars a year in telecommunications costs, according to Tom Marcin, director of global communications for DuPont, who is responsible for about US$100 million in global telecom spending every year. He used his spot on a Spring Interop panel to tell networking and telecom vendors to put together practical FMC options for customers quickly.

"We have 20,000 cell phone users, and people just love to use their cell phones," Marcin told the panel. "We've tried to change that with policies, but they love cells -- they have people on speed dial, know how to use them. We're finding it's not practical to change that behaviour, and we're trying to drive the costs out in other ways."

Studies from In-Stat and Juniper Research estimate that about a third of business calls are received on mobiles when the owners are at their desks.

About 41% of all residential cell phone minutes are used from the home, according to Stuart Carlaw, mobile and wireless analyst at ABI Research.

"But the home is also the environment that's most hostile to mobiles," Carlaw said. "So if you make [FMC] affordable using home networks and make it as stable and functional as it needs to be, that's an option that's incredibly attractive to consumers -- and that's where the volume is."

Allowing a call to a cell phone to be routed through a corporate WiFi network would drastically cut the number of cell network minutes customers use -- which is one reason some carriers have been slow to deliver that ability.

Routing a call through WiFi also gives end users access to central telephone directories and all the call-control features of a VoIP network, without forcing them to move from a cell phone to an office-based landline.

But only a few cell phone service providers currently offer any level of cellular/WiFi integration, primarily for customers who use dual-mode handsets that are able to connect to both WiFi and cell networks.

France Telecom, for example, is testing FMC under its Orange brand, and has signed up close to half a million consumers, Carlaw said. British Telecom has close to 40,000 users on its service.

In the U.S. a few providers have a service that will shift a call automatically and invisibly from the cell network to a local WiFi network as the customer moves from place to place.

Those carriers are at the forefront, at least in the United States, Carlaw said. But they won't have the converging market to themselves for long. The demand is so obvious -- especially among consumers -- that 80% of carriers plan to offer some form of FMC by April 2008, according to an Insight Research survey of carriers.

But whatever happens to the carriers' business, FMC is a potential windfall for both networking vendors and the channel. An Insight Research report on the impact of FMC estimates the total worldwide market for FMC carrier services and equipment within the enterprise market alone will rise from an estimated US$199 million this year to US$15.9 billion in 2012.

Fixed-mobile convergence opportunities for resellers

Two major approaches to fixed-mobile convergence (FMC) are working their way into the business market.

The first and most widely known is having the customer buy a phone that supports both WiFi and GSM networks, then install client software on the phone to handle Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA). (UMA was renamed Generic Access Network (GAN) in 2005, but is still usually referred to as UMA.)

Using UMA -- a set of protocols designed specifically for GSM networks -- the client constantly scans radio signals in the handset's vicinity and manages the shift from the GSM to a WiFi network without losing the call.

That approach puts most of the cost and responsibility for making the change on the carriers, but puts control of the customers' network in the carrier's hands as well, according to an Insight Research report.

Dual-mode handsets also deaden batteries much faster than single-mode setups, are subject to interference from other devices, and may find more dead spots inside a customer's building than outside on the mobile network, the report said. Between a third and half of all corporations have WiFi networks of one kind or another installed already, according to various analyst reports. Because most are designed for data, however, not voice, WiFi signals inside a customer's building may be too spotty to support fixed-mobile convergence without extensive changes, Carlaw said.

To address that problem, customers would have to set up many more WiFi access points to improve the availability of the signal, and add voice-specific enhancements to the WiFi network, potentially including Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) and VoIP call controllers that can manage calls placed from inside the building.

The other major approach is to put the equivalent of a mobile phone tower inside the corporate network. Femtocells broadcast and receive on mobile phone frequencies and connect those calls to the corporate network. These are manufactured by specialty companies, though Cisco and other networking companies are rumoured to be interested as well.

While they can support both GSM and CDMA mobile phone networks, femtocells have been positioned as an alternative approach to FMC that is independent of GSM/UMA networks.

Femtocells typically use Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) and IP Media Subsystems (IMS) to provide call-control functions to network managers and to convert mobile phone calls to VoIP. They connect through any IP network to the core network of the carrier, and route a call as any IP-based PBX would.

Companies that have built their value proposition on UMA argue that UMA and the other standards being built by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) offer richer call-control than SIP or IMS.

But the femtocell itself usually provides "half a controller -- almost like having a PBX in the building at zero extra cost," Carlaw said.

"The cellular guys are stepping away from SIP, but there is a lot of interest in using SIP in the enterprise," Carlaw said. "But my thoughts are that you're not going to get it into anything above the medium enterprise level. The problem is that when you have to have a number of femtocells on different floors or whatever, they interfere with each other. The seamless handoff would be much more complicated and it might become untenable rather quickly."

Carlaw expects femtocells will eventually become much more common as central phone switches for home users, rather than in businesses, which will rely on WiFi and dual-mode phones.

Insight's report, however, predicts that applications such as calendars, directories and location-based services will drive the acceptance of femtocells because they require the fewest changes to the rest of a customer's network and handsets.

In the end, corporations will have to accept WiFi/mobile networks to appease employees who use such devices at home and don't want to switch to a separate phone when they go to work, Insight reports.

"If you're in an enterprise environment, the best gamble would be to look for the WiFi/voice-over-wireless implementation in the enterprise," Carlaw said.

As a practical matter, though, fixed-mobile convergence is still far enough in the future that channel partners should be keeping an eye on it and preparing, but not yet trying to sell customers on it.

"We're having success in pockets, but voice over wireless is not an end-to-end solution yet," Fink said. "We're still working on single-number access -- not converging the telephone networks as much as providing transparency between the two. It's on the forefront of unified communications. But it's not here yet."

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