FMC ups the stakes on telephony – Now might be the best time to ante up
Fixed/mobile convergence (FMC), which first took hold in Europe, began trickling into the U.S. market this year with deployments by Cincinnati Bell and T-Mobile. There are obvious financial and operational benefits to deploying FMC services, but the technology is still in flux, where it fits into the IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) framework is uncertain, and anyone looking for a turnkey system to deploy is going to be disappointed.
As FMC washes up on these shores, its very nature is evolving, says Craig Gosselin, CMO of NewStep, a 2003 spinout of Bell Canada that specializes in FMC equipment. FMC was conceived as a dual-mode Wi-Fi/cellular operation, with handoffs between the two. But FMC’s definition is broadening to encompass single-mode capabilities, including one-button transfer, four-digit dialing and call forwarding.
This expanded concept of FMC provides a bridge to unified communications (UC), Gosselin says. Like FMC, UC simplifies the user’s communications environment by consolidating features such as e-mail, voicemail, fax and voice calls under a common, user-controlled interface.
FMC is also the pathway to IMS, which relies on both broadband and Wi-Fi deployments.
For classic dual-mode FMC, cable operators require a business relationship with a cellular operator for access to a cellular network. But operators are also showing an interest in convergence capabilities that don’t require a relationship with a wireless provider, says Kevin Neely, Arris’ product manager of next-generation access networks.
“The ultimate goal is full convergence, and by that I mean delivering any service, over any network, to any device,” Neely says.
The demand is there
The consumer FMC market is growing more quickly than expected, and cable operators in the U.S. are currently in talks for trials and/or are undergoing trials.
This summer, Cincinnati Bell (CB) launched the first FMC service in the U.S., called CB Home Run, enabling its mobile subscribers to connect via their home Wi-Fi networks and the provider’s 300-plus hotspots – with unlimited Wi-Fi minutes. Soon after, T-Mobile launched the similar HotSpot@Home.
Wireless providers such as T-Mobile are deploying the service as a form of landline replacement, persuading subscribers to use their landlines less and their mobile handsets more. So convergence for landline operators, such as CB, is to a large extent a defensive strategy against landline replacement, Neely says. For cable operators, it’s also a response to increased competition from telcos, and a way to differentiate and add value to their services.
The financial argument
About 40 percent of the cost of carrying a wireless call falls on the cellular network. If wireless operators can shift even a small percentage of those calls to the virtually unlimited Internet capacity of Wi-Fi networks (and offload traffic from their cellular networks, which are becoming overloaded), and consumers can shave minutes off of their cell phone bills and receive better coverage, even in hard-to-reach places, it’s a win-win.
The benefits for service providers include new revenue opportunities, cost reduction and greater customer satisfaction. “There are no drawbacks,” Neely says.
But challenges lie ahead, mostly related to the complexity of offering FMC. The interconnection with wireless partners and backoffice technologies is no small feat, says Steve Susina, UTStarcom’s senior product manager. Neither is the integration with the billing system. “That’s where our customers are at now.
Figure 1: UTStarcom’s Continuity FMC solution
Incorporating the user experience into the test plant can also be extremely difficult. Operators need to know how to authenticate a wireless phone call through a Wi-Fi network, Susina says. “We understand how cellular works, but Wi-Fi is different. You need to make sure you can provide authentication in a manner that’s easy for users to understand.”
The biggest standards issue is where FMC fits into the IMS framework, Susina says. “It’s a new concept in user interfaces, a new concept for service providers. We think it will be commonplace in the future, but it’s relatively new right now.”
Most vendors’ solutions work with 95 percent of the Wi-Fi modems in the marketplace, but there is a lack of Wi-Fi-enabled handsets available that are capable of supporting FMC. Also, running voice over Wi-Fi will run down the phone’s battery very quickly. But at the tail end of this year and in 2008, more handsets will be released with far better battery lives. And by the end of 2008, embedded Wi-Fi should be commonplace on high-end phones, just as video is now.
Try it, you’ll like it
Susina’s advice is for operators to get started on trial projects long before they plan on rolling out commercial services, so that they can fully understand how it will be delivered. “The notion that it can be thrown in quickly is extremely optimistic. You need to make this right. It’s a different concept to blend cellular with VoIP Wi-Fi.”
The pieces of the puzzle that need to fit together, he says, are the infrastructure, the wireless carrier, the handset manufacturer, the different kinds of handsets and the way the service integrates with the service portfolio.
Next year will see market leadership established, Gosselin says. In 2009, next-generation services will emerge, there will be seamless mobility, the ability to move multimedia from device to device will surface, and WiMAX may even become a part of the model.
Cable is moving slowly in this direction, but it’s deliberate, Neely says. “FMC has always been thought of as an initial service that justifies the launch of IMS. But in practice, IMS is looking like it’s further out than [cable operators] would like in terms of being able to launch a convergence service for voice.”
But he expects to see the first cable FMC deployments within the next 12 to 14 months.
“It’s all a part of IMS, PacketCable 2.0. Everybody sees down the road a convergence of networks happening,” he says, a blending of services instead of a bundling of them, combining them in ways that add value to the most important piece of the puzzle – the consumer.