This article is the first in a two-part series on the issues surrounding the delivery of fixed-mobile convergence (FMC) services to enterprise customers. In this first part, issues to consider for enabling enterprise FMC services are presented. In the next article, a potential solution as well as new enterprise service opportunities for operators will be introduced.
About two decades ago, the mobile industry got its start on the strength of early adoption of mobile phones by business users. Despite the size and heft of those early cellular phones, business users latched on to the benefits of mobility and gave the wireless industry the boost it needed to get up on its feet and drive continued success through eventual penetration into the mass consumer space.
Fast forward to today and the telecom industry is on the verge of yet another major inflection point: fixed-mobile convergence. While early FMC deployments such as those based on Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) technology have primarily focused on the consumer segment, lack of standards and technology incompatibility issues have prevented FMC services to be tailored for the enterprise.
The bottom line is that operators that successfully deliver FMC services to the enterprise stand much to gain. Two decades ago the business user jump-started adoption of mobile services. This time around success with the enterprise segment could very well translate into eventual mass scale success again.
A Simple Issue to Consider
The key, therefore, is for operators to develop the right kind of enterprise FMC service offering, leveraging standards-based technologies that can support those enterprise FMC service requirements. From a technology perspective, there is certainly no shortage of approaches in the current FMC landscape.
From UMA to Voice Call Continuity (VCC) to IP Multimedia Subsystem (News - Alert) (IMS), standards bodies such as the 3GPP are hard at work in coming up with answers that can be applied in a standardized fashion throughout the operator community. 3GPP 2 and TISPAN are also following the footsteps of the 3GPP very closely.
If you are an operator looking to go to market now and trying to figure out which technology to use to effectively deliver new FMC services to the enterprise user, the navigation process through the dizzying technology alphabet soup can be greatly simplified by considering one very simply criteria:
For the enterprise services being considered, are there corresponding dual-mode handsets that are standards-based, have multiple models to choose from, and are available in volume in an attractive form factor that meet mid-low tier pricing points?
The key words in the above are: standards-based, available in volume, attractive form factor, and inexpensive – which are all critical requirements for an operator to introduce a successful mass-deployable enterprise FMC service offering. This means that solutions based on expensive PDA devices running proprietary client software do not pass this simple test. Technologies that rely on PDA devices may be sufficient for lab and limited market trials, but they do not meet the criteria for mass deployment.
Once a particular FMC technology solution passes the simple test above, further investigation and evaluation for enterprise FMC service suitability can then take place accordingly.
The Current Landscape
In order for a particular type of dual-mode handset to meet the simple criteria presented above, there has to be wide development support and manufacturing commitment from leading handset vendors such as Motorola (News - Alert), Nokia (News - Alert), Samsung, etc. Otherwise, it’s very unlikely that a particular type of device can be produced and supported in volume – which is required in order to make the device inexpensive to roll out to end users while having multiple models to choose from in attractive form factors.
However, leading handset vendors need to know whether a particular effort has been standardized before they will commit to wide-scale development and production. It’s risky for them to commit to a development and production project when there is no industry-wide standard behind a particular technology.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that today the only type of dual-mode device that meets the aforementioned criteria is based on the only standardized FMC technology: UMA.
Is UMA the right choice for delivering enterprise FMC services?
The answer is yes and no. The answer is a definite YES from the perspective that dual-mode handsets based on UMA are the only handsets available today that are viable for mass deployment based on the criteria established above. Operators should most certainly take advantage of the standardization effort that has already taken place for UMA-based handsets and the imminent availability in volume and sexy form factors from several leading handset vendors.
At the same time, the answer is NO from the perspective that UMA is generally considered a consumer-centric technology, and as such is not well suited for delivering enterprise FMC services. Indeed, starting in September of this year we will see the first wave of commercial UMA deployments, and these rollouts are solely aimed at the consumer segment.
Ideally, enterprise calling features such as Call Groups, Extension Dialing, Multi-Ring, Follow-Me, etc. should be accessible by a dual-mode device in an enterprise environment. However, today it’s not practical to do so with UMA handsets since calling features to UMA handsets are inherently provided by the Mobile Switching Center (MSC), not IP-PBX / Centrex. Unless new approaches are taken, UMA rollouts will remain consumer focused.
What about dual-mode FMC solutions based on the IP-PBX?
Indeed, there are dual-mode FMC solutions centered on the enterprise IP-PBX that are aimed squarely at the business user. The first example of such solutions was introduced around 2004. Due to a variety of reasons, this solution is no longer available today. At the present time, a number of incumbent IP-PBX vendors in conjunction with startups are experimenting with enterprise-centric dual-mode solutions.
The challenge with these FMC approaches is that they are proprietary in nature and there is no standards activity around them. As such, these approaches require proprietary clients and do not meet the handset criteria discussed previously. Until these approaches become standardized, there won’t be viable mass deployable dual-mode handsets. No standard, no mass deployable handsets.
Furthermore, these proprietary solutions are being driven by IP-PBX vendors that are targeting large corporations that own IP-PBX equipment. This means that SME / SOHO business users – as well as operators that want to offer hosted FMC services to them - are out of luck.
In addition, the way mobility (handover between Wi-Fi and cellular) is handled by these proprietary solutions is loosely based on the 3GPP VCC principles and requires the making of a second call in order to trigger handover. The challenge is that VCC itself is still work-in-progress and remains to be standardized, and the issues presented in my previous article (see “IMS Service Mobility – Beyond VCC” – June 2006) remain unresolved.
The Way Forward
In summary, UMA is attractive from a dual-mode handset availability standpoint, but in its present form, traditional UMA is not ideal for enterprise environments. On the other hand, proprietary solutions being developed by IP-PBX vendors and their startup partners are potentially more suitable for the enterprise user, but they are not ideal for operator-hosted service models to the SME / SOHO segments. More importantly, the lack of a standards-based approach means these solutions will have limited device choices and no viable mass deployable handsets.
So what should operators do? How should they go about delivering FMC enterprise services? What would the ideal solution look like? What are the technology requirements? What kind of enterprise FMC services can be offered? The answers to these questions will be presented in Part II of this series along with new hosted enterprise FMC service offerings that operators can offer to SME / SOHO business users. Stay tuned.
Allan Baw is Director of Product Management in the Mobility Solutions department at Stoke, a company dedicated to accelerating the adoption of IP-based communications by solving the service delivery challenges associated with network convergence and mobility.