The need magnet and fixed-mobile convergence
There is a big need magnet in the sky pulling services to a digital point. Networks are migrating to all-IP architectures, and the devices that access them are merging into multipurpose communications, photographic, agenda, GPS and whatever-else-electronic-that-fits in a device that slips into a shirt pocket.
One of the most promising sorts of convergence from technological, subscriber service and commercial viewpoints is fixed-mobile convergence (FMC). Some see FMC as the future and as the salvation of many fixed access operators.
Now there is a secret of sorts – no one tries to hide it, but few seem to know it – there is no mobile service without fixed backhaul connections. These connections are not just bits of string that tie mobile phones to fixed, these are major, high-speed, broadband connections that literally hold mobile networks together; without fixed links there are no mobile networks. From the user’s point of view, though, this convergence is invisible. For a user, fixed-mobile convergence means having your cake and eating it too. The mobile phone is, increasingly, the communications device of choice or, as in many developing regions, the only choice for most of the world’s subscribers. The phone is more than a communications device, it is a lifestyle, an electronic wallet – banking and credit card services for the world’s unbanked population, a game machine, a camera, a mobile TV, the social network interface … on and one with no end in sight. The mobile is more than a device; to users, it is their connection to their world, businesses and friends – it is always with them and it brings many advantages that fixed phones do not.
FMC ‘s most basic version is a voice service that gives one the best of both the fixed and mobile world by moving seamlessly to the best available network, be it fixed or mobile.
Mobile users with fixed service want to take advantage of their mobile in the home, but without paying the premium for mobile service. FMC lets subscribers use their mobiles at home; they keep their mobile number, but pay fixed-service rates. By installing tiny ‘femto’ cells, a mobile operator can seamlessly hand-off calls to and from the mobile phone to the broadband Internet connection at the home – or office, for that matter. Since the call travels to the backbone network via the user’s own broadband connection, the traffic on the mobile operator’s access network is reduced.
Business users see FMC as a way to extend home office PBX services into the field, to seamlessly and transparently reach employees through a single number no matter where they are – at the office or in the field. PBX manufacturers are, of course, each working on their own super version of FMC and piling on as many features as they can – instant messaging, voice mail -even visual voice mail, all sorts of directory-driven services and more. By integrating text, voice and images FMC can even evolve into unified communication, but that is another story with its own set of advantages and problems.
FMC usually uses dual mode cell phones with WiFi handsets to connect to the fixed network using the office WLAN or the home’s own broadband Internet connection. The dual-mode phones are still somewhat expensive and run through batteries rapidly, but they should get better and cheaper in the near future. The WiFi version makes sense in companies with an extensive office WLAN and at homes with WiFi networks for broadband Internet and home entertainment access.
There is also cell-based FMC that uses existing GSM or CDMA handsets. These 3G mobile-based versions uses licensed spectrum and can offer a number of advantages including better quality, cost savings, better battery life and a host of other benefits. Although I have heard more talk about the WiFi, dual-mode handset, version, I expect the cell-based versions will eventually take over for many applications.
Although there is a lot of fuss about FMC at home, the big equipment companies seem to be betting on the office market. I haven’t got a field team at my beck and call to check this, but my impression, based on the very limited figures I’ve seen, is that although companies are interested, maybe very interested, few have committed big bucks to FMC projects. The economic downturn makes it likely that few companies will rush into FMC until business starts picking up and the economy is heading firmly upward.
The operator’s business case for FMC will depend upon weighing and balancing a great number of factors including the capital expense to roll it out, the availability of credit including vendor financing, current backhaul costs compared to the cost of off-loading backhaul via the home or business broadband connection, the difference between FMC rates and current mobile rates. There are a good many other factors, including competitive pressures, as well, but that gives a good idea.
I wonder if, even after thoroughly crunching the numbers and massaging the data, many operators will feel comfortable with the results – positive or negative. At least they will think long and hard before giving up mobile minutes for unknown FMC gains at home. The situation in the enterprise market will be demand driven; large companies that see real internal synergies, cost savings or even income enhancements will pressure their communications service providers until they get their way or until the competition offers what they want.
I expect many companies will be in for a surprise. It sounds easy: just link your WLAN to your PBX and get dual mode handsets. There are other variations, but they all have a simple sounding, simplistic, ‘just add hot water and serve’, description. The problems will come when the WLAN – a data-centric network has to be re- dimensioned and re-engineered for voice. This costs money, and managing the new voice centric network is likely to be a trying experience. Putting in a big business FMC network, even if it is not a full unified-communications (UC) effort – no, FMC and UC are not the same thing – is bound to be a complicated, nerve wracking, experience.
Still, FMC lets companies integrate all their voice communications including all the mobile devices their employees use, control and track mobile costs, and provide a single point of contact, a single number, for each employee’s communications. There are problems with any new technology; so until the sector matures and stabilises, users will have to deal with the problems, hitches, glitches, bugs and costs pioneering brings.
OBusinesses are sure to move to FMC – and eventually UC as well – over time because of the efficiencies, cost savings, customer satisfaction and productivity gains they generate on a day-to-day basis. Today, FMC is relatively new, the full cost of FMC is falling, but still high, so the return on investment is bound to be a bit slow for most companies. Over the next few years, both fixed and mobile operators will complete the transition to all-IP backbones and the boundaries between the core systems of the fixed and mobile networks disappear; FMC systems will also increasingly become plug and play propositions.
The unified fixed/mobile core networks will help operators accelerate the move to FMC since the administration and operation of FMC becomes simpler and more cost effective with merged networks. The network transition will probably be substantially complete within three to four years, even with the economic downturn.
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The next issue of Connect-World India will be published early next month. This edition of Connect-World will be widely distributed to our reader base and, as well, at shows such as: Convergence India, New Delhi, (19-21 March 2009).
The theme of this issue of Connect-Word India will be – It’s more than outsourcing.
The growth of India’s economy, driven by ICT and business process outsourcing has inspired comment and imitation the world over. The credit given to outsourcing is deserved, but the government policies, astute entrepreneurs a vast number of well educated and prepared professionals that made India’s success in this field are often overlooked. India’s growing ability to source new service and products, not just outsource the operations of others, and its ability to move ahead by its own efforts are also overlooked by those not familiar with the country’s vast pool of talent and potential.
This issue of Connect-World India will examine India’s growing strength and look a bit down the road it is travelling.
This issue of Connect-World India will explore the influence of information and communication technology upon the transformation of India, and how India, itself, is transforming technology and processes and helping create a seamless world.
India 2009 Media Pack; Click here