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The Year of Calling Convergedly

Though vendors and service providers have yet to agree on how fixed-mobile convergence will take shape in the enterprise -- or, for that matter, on what exactly is meant by the term "fixed-mobile convergence" -- the next year will be a watershed for deployments of converged handsets and networks, according to a quartet of company officials.

Speaking on a panel at MBE, the four executives agreed that the period of trials is well-nigh complete, that the technology to provide seamless transfers from WiFi to cellular networks, for example, and "one-number" single-extension roaming capabilities to mobile workers is largely in place, and that the demand among enterprises is significant. Fitting the various pieces of that puzzle together in secure and reliable ways remains a challenge.

"2007 is going to be the year this shift happens, with really big deployments happening by the end of the year," asserted Purnima Kochikar, director of strategy and business development for Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK)'s Enterprise Solutions unit. "We're going to come out with more dual-mode smartphones, and the forecast for shipments of these devices are set to climb rapidly."

Nokia said in July that it is trialing fixed-mobile convergence solutions using UMA, the network spec that allows calls to be transferred between cellular, WiFi, and Bluetooth networks. (See Nokia Trials FMC.)

"Convergence is happening," said David LeClair, director of client applications at Avaya Inc. . "We haven’t locked onto a single definition of what it will look like, but we're getting there -- and there's a lot more consensus now than there was 18 months ago."

Asked by moderator Craig Mathias, principal at the Fairpoint Group and an Unstrung columnist, for a prediction as to when FMC deployments will reach 1 million individual users, the panel (which included reps from convergence startup DiVitas Networks Inc. and wireless LAN vendor Aruba Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: ARUN) in addition to Avaya's LeClair and Kochikar, of Nokia) voted unanimously for 2008.

That accords roughly with forecasts from research firm Infonetics Research Inc. , which says that the market for converged cellular/WiFi voice service is predicting that the voice-over-WiFi market, driven by the arrival of inexpensive dualmode devices on the market over the next couple of years, will be worth $3.7 billion by 2009. (See FMC: $3.7B by 2009?.)

Nokia's dual-mode E61 phone, for instance, is now available in Europe and is expected to debut in the U.S. in the first half of 2007.

"We've got customers in the U.S., in Singapore, in Australia, and the U.K., who are taking off-the-shelf phones and integrating [WiFi clients on the devices] themselves," commented Peter Thornycroft, product manager at Aruba. "There's a lot of evidence that the interest is there for unified calling over both WiFi and cellular networks."

The panelists pointed to several parallel developments that have brought fixed-mobile solutions from the theoretical to the practical stage and will bring them to market in the near term:

  • The availability of reasonably priced dual-mode handsets from a variety of vendors. "Dual-mode devices have been announced or are in planning by every major phone vendor," said LeClair.

  • The shift from proprietary technology to a standards-based system, particularly for voice-over-WiFi.

  • The completion or near-completion of FMC trials by various vendors. T-Mobile US Inc. , for instance, said last month it is launching a pilot WiFi/cellular network for customers in Seattle. (See T-Mobile Pilots WiFi/Cell Service.)

  • The coming together in FMC alliances of different vendors and service providers. "Voice enables wireless LAN, and wireless LAN enables voice," said Kochikar. "It's a symbiotic relationship and the companies on this panel have to make it work."

The panelists did not ignore the challenges that remain in creating seamless handovers between disparate networks, using dual-mode handsets. "Just because you've got a WiFi-enabled phone doesn't mean it does voice-over-WiFi very well," pointed out LeClair.

What's more, solutions that work in one direction -- say, handing calls initiated over the wireless LAN over to cellular networks when the caller leaves the building -- may not work in the other direction (i.e., shifting cellular calls to WiFi). That's the case with an initial system from Aruba, due to be announced next week and previewed by Thornycroft this morning, based on the company's Mobility Controller.

The other challenge was symbolized by the fact that the two big elephants in the FMC circus -- the big carriers and networking giant Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) -- were not represented on the panel. Cisco has made a series of moves to build up its FMC capabilities over the last year, and it's not at all clear that it will give up a proprietary solution to work with other vendors. (See Cisco Plots More Dual-Mode Action.)

Ultimately, says Kochikar, the market demand will drive converged solutions sooner rather than later: "People are asking us for solutions, because the workforce behavior is changing and the infrastructure is not keeping up."

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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