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Convergence, or just a tangled mess of ideas?

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Mobile Workshop The word "convergence" is responsible for a lot of confusion in the industry. In some circles it means the coming together of all voice, video and data on an IP network with delivery based on the circumstances or "presence" of the user.

In others, it's about getting mobile and fixed line communications working together more sweetly, often backed up by the delivery of TV and broadband as a triple or quad play, all on one bill.

Now we have every man and his dog from the service provider community positioning converged services as a way to broaden the value they deliver to their customers – or, more cynically, as a way to protect their turf and/or muscle onto other people's.

Trying to come up with our own definition of what convergence means against this background is a futile exercise, so we're not going to try to do it here.

Focusing on how it will further the interests or otherwise of big incumbent suppliers or new market entrants is equally futile, as a quick change in pricing policy from Orange, Vodafone, BT or Deutsche Telekom will often neutralise the latest disruptive technology or idea overnight. And on the other hand, creative partnerships between an insignificant wannabe and a player with lots of leverage, as well as acquisitions could throw a spanner in the works of all market predictions in a way that no one can predict.

So let's start from the point of what really matters, which is sorting out the communications and content provision mess that all of us have to cope with in our personal and business lives. Things like the fact that we have mobile and fixed line phones that work in a completely disjointed manner both technically and commercially; or the fact that if I really want my notebook PC to be always connected in the quickest and most cost effective manner, I need a broadband subscription for home use, a Wi-Fi subscription for hotspots, and a cellular data card when I'm not within coverage of either of the first two.

Even more annoying are digital rights issues, such as if I subscribe to a piece of content via satellite or cable, I have to pay a second time to access it on my PC and a third time on my mobile, again, with different uncoordinated service arrangements and typically with multiple service providers involved.

So what's the answer?

If you talk to many of the service providers and the equipment manufacturers selling them the kit to build their next generation of "converged networks" with the capability to deliver "converged services" on top of them, it's clear that they are working on the assumption that we only need one all encompassing service provider in the future (one supplier to rule them all) that will cater for all of our needs across the various different dimensions – fixed/mobile connectivity, cellular/Wi-Fi connectivity, voice/data services, broadcast/on-demand content, online/downloadable games, unified messaging services, presence...and so the list goes on.

So, if we believe this monopoly big brother world is where we are headed, it looks as if we will be going from one extreme to the other.

Now let's get real.

The prospect of putting all of your eggs in one service provider basket for all of these things probably frightens the hell out of most people, whether looked at from a business or consumer services point of view, as well as being a non-starter from the perspective of regulation and the market forces of healthy competition. But, there is clearly some middle ground that is realistic, as navigating today's highly fragmented service provision landscape is a pain for many of us.

Fixed line operators have begun offering mobile phone services, some on a simple reseller basis with the suggestion of cost savings from bundling, others with genuine attempts at providing a degree of functional integration, for example, BT Fusion.

We then have the mobile operators extending out their GPRS/3G mobile data proposition to include Wi-Fi access and, more recently, fixed line broadband services, for example, Vodafone's announcement of a wholesale partnership with BT, and Orange's new Unique Phone.

Right now, they are more at the level of simple bundling, with the promise of overall lower costs and less ongoing hassle through working with a single provider for the different types of access services. Is this attractive? If not, what more would need to be done to get you interested? Coherent content subscriptions across the different networks and end point devices from a personal perspective? Integrated support across the myriad of access technologies from a business point of view? And how much of the requirement can be dealt with through standards and suppliers playing nicely together, rather than forcing everything through the "one stop shop" approach?

If you are up to speed in this area, let us know what "convergence" or "unification" means to you, the problems you see with the current state of play and your wish list for the future, by posting your thoughts below.

For more discussion of fixed/mobile convergence in particular, check out our structured review of this area and join the existing debate going on here

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