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Mobile Workshop For the last part of our mobile workshop we’re looking at mobile convergence. After our customary market observations, we’d love to hear your experiences with converged mobile and fixed voice and data.

What exactly is convergence?

The term convergence is used in many contexts. A rich vein of marketing spin surrounds a lot of it, all steps on the road to voice, video and data delivery that is independent of the location, available communications network and circumstances (or “presence”) of the user. A network nirvana that may or may not be grounded in technical possibility.

In order to reach this perfect end state, the network, application or content and the end device must be decoupled to allow a situation-based delivery based on the need of the consumer at that time. This includes both business and consumer content.

What can you actually buy today?

The interim steps to this end point, although termed “convergence”, are grounded in the starting position of the suppliers, examples being the arrival of broadband wireless from mobile phone companies, voice services from cable companies, IPTV from telephone companies, and the merging of mobile and fixed line telephony.

Because the different communications layers are not decoupled, building these interim steps creates what might be termed points of control in the digital future. Ownership of these points is where the big money is going to be made. Examples of control points are digital set top boxes, billing of personal voice and data traffic and the management and delivery of presence-based collaboration and social networking.

Merging mobile and landline calls

As part of our mobile workshop series, we’re going to take a look at the interim step that occurs when you merge mobile and fixed line telephony. Fixed Mobile Convergence (FMC) provides staff with one handset and phone number that automatically follows them wherever they go, not just within a particular building, and which can also seamlessly hand off calls between wireless and wireline networks without an interruption. In-building roaming is possible today with a legacy PBX but only by keying in commands to re-route the call to a different physical extension. Newer IP telephony solutions allow free roaming within a facility but not outside. Adding the mobile telephony piece makes roaming completely location-free on the same phone number.

A typical service will comprise a WiFi network providing mobility within the home or office, which then routes the outbound calls over the phone wires coming into the building and onto the service provider’s network. When a user moves outside the building, calls are seamlessly handed off to the cellular network, and vice versa when they return.

What you buy

In order to manage the handoff between the office or home-based network and the cellular network, the operator provides a managed service that does all the call handling. This can be very complex, managing the different signalling systems between the networks for example, and is likely to remain a barrier to full interoperability of services for some while.

The benefit to the user in consumer or business is the ability to carry one handset to make and receive calls, but to take advantage (in principal) of the most cost-effective connection depending on location, without having to do complicated manual call-forwarding. The net result is improved availability (presence) and lower cost, with the addition that all mobile and landline calls are now on the same bill and can be negotiated singly by business.

Data as well

Convergence of data services is also possible using similar principals. It’s possible to get radio cards for a laptop that can connect between 3G and GPRS networks with seamless handover, and can reconnect to a WiFi network when available. This data roaming can also be included with the voice traffic on one bill to the business user.

We have started to see such FMC services emerge: BT Fusion and Carphone Warehouse TalkTalk and Orange’s new Unique Phone being some examples.

Buying into FMC

One of the key steps before evaluating FMC services is understanding your current business needs and phone use and looking at the services. If you have a group of salespeople who conduct all their business via their mobile phone number, you can look for offerings that will offer a cost advantage when they are working in the office.

The painful subject of handsets comes up again at this point. You’re more likely to find an IP softphone supported on a PDA-based handset, although services such as BT Fusion do offer specialised dual mode phones from Motorola.

It’s also important to look at the charge structure. For example, if you have a mobile number, do you get charged mobile rates whether or not you are using the mobile network? If not, there’s no advantage in buying the FMC solution for your field sales force. Is the range of “free” items (broadband, off-peak calls, internal company calls etc.) actually relevant to you or your business? Once you know where you are, you can start to look at ways that you can take advantage of FMC to deliver additional business benefits.

Who will sell it to you

The sale of FMC solutions into business is going to be done by the traditional channels, setting up an interesting battle of wits between the corporate sales teams of the wireline operators, with their traditional skills in voice telephony and emerging high speed IP data services; and the cellular operators who have more experience selling mobile voice and data communications solutions. In the initial stages, it’s likely that both groups of sales people will be on a pretty steep learning curve, so it’s a good idea for the customer to take the time to educate themselves in order to be in the driving seat during any discussions.

Your views

We’d love to hear from any of you who are considering or who have been using FMC solutions, for either voice or data. Is there sufficient choice of suppliers? Do you feel that they understand your business needs and offer suitable products? What are the pros and cons? Have you found it to be another opportunity to descend into Handset Hell?®

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