Insider: UMA's Narrow Window

Unlicensed Mobile Accesss (UMA) technology is key to unlocking the doors for early fixed/mobile convergence, but only has a limited time to shine, finds the latest research report from Unstrung Insider.

Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) is a fixed/mobile convergence technology that allows a user -- equipped with a dual-mode cellular/WLAN handset -- to make calls across any generic wireless LAN and IP network with the call and signaling data encapsulated in secure IP tunnels. These tunnels terminate on an access gateway, which processes and passes call data to the circuit- or packet-switched mobile core carrier network.

The technology was initially pioneered by startup Kineto Wireless Inc. but has since been taken up by major networking vendors such as Alcatel (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA) and Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) and adopted by carriers such as Cingular Wireless in the U.S. It is also part of the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) 's UMTS 3G cellular specification.

The report, Wireless VOIP & UMA: Friends or Foes? touts UMA as the short-term technology leader for enabling calls across different wired and wireless network types.

"There is still significant uncertainty about how and when fixed/mobile convergence services will be rolled out -- and additional uncertainty around consumer uptake once services are available," writes the report's author Gabriel Brown. "[But] Unstrung Insider believes UMA will be the lead mechanism and... will prove a longer term success than many anticipate. Current thinking is that UMA has a three- to four-year window of opportunity."

Operators like UMA because its architecture allows them to retain control over the user's calls even when they roam onto wireless LAN or Bluetooth networks, which means that they aren't cannibalizing precious voice revenues.

Yet, despite this predeliction for control, carriers are already butting up against the limitations of what UMA can and can't do. Cingular is said to be working to develop client software that supports both the UMA and session initiation protocol (SIP) on one handset. In theory, this system should allow consumers to roam between cellular and WiFi hotspots outdoors and hand off to the SIP client, which allows faster downloads in the home. (See Cingular's Got Big FMC Plans.) And UMA doesn't yet offer key features that would make it attractive for enterprise customers.

"UMA can be used in any environment, enterprise, hotspot, or domestic," says Brown. "But on its own UMA doesn’t really help with things like PBX integration, a lot of carriers see it as a consumer thing right now. This could change if IP Centrex takes off, which could drive UMA into smaller business."

Overall, enterprise WiFi/cellular convergence is quite a bit more open with several competing approaches starting to get momentum," says Brown. "Like every wireless initiative, a wide choice of handsets will be the key determinant of success or failure."

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

The report, Wireless VOIP & UMA: Friends or Foes?, is available as part of an annual subscription (12 monthly issues) to Unstrung Insider, priced at $1,350. Individual reports are available for $900. To subscribe, please visit: www.unstrung.com/insider.

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