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WiFi Roaming Vexes FMC Providers

Operators looking to dish up fixed/mobile convergence (FMC) services to large businesses are eagerly awaiting the availability of the 802.11r standard (AKA, "fast roaming") later this year. The new standard will speed handovers between wireless LAN access points for real-time applications like voice over WiFi, which is a crucial element of FMC services in large office and campus environments.

Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) 's 802.11r, also known by its snappier name "fast basic service set (BSS) transitions," is expected to be available at the end of this year or early 2008, and it has been in the works since 2004. (See Dial R for Roaming and Roll On, Wireless VOIP.)

As more WiFi and dualmode WiFi/cellular devices become available and operators gear up for enterprise FMC services, fast handovers between wireless LAN access points for voice is a key issue to resolve.

"In-building access point handover is the most important seamless experience we can give to the enterprise," says David Woodbridge, chief of devices at BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA)'s BT Retail. "If you’re walking through a building and you drop a call, that's a bad user experience."

"Enterprises will need integrated WiFi access points to make this work," he adds.

BT Global Services will launch FMC service Corporate Fusion in eight European countries at the end of this month. It is a session initiation protocol (SIP)-based service that includes the following elements: a PBX from Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), a call control server from NewStep Networks Inc. , wireless LAN access points, and dualmode WiFi/GSM handsets. (See BT Plans Corporate Fusion, BT Adds WiFi to Fusion, BT Picks NewStep, BT Starts Spanish MVNO, and Gateway Key to BT's Fusion Flop.)

Orange Business Services also plans a SIP-based enterprise version of its Unik FMC service later this year.

"Fast roaming is an issue between access points," says Paul Meche, technology fellow at Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK).

"Until [802.11r is] deployed, if you want access point-to-access point handover, you need to be in a homogeneous environment from your WiFi provider," says Meche, technology fellow at Nokia. "It's a factor on industry growth and we're working on that."

But Unstrung Insider chief analyst Gabriel Brown says 802.11r won't have much impact on the market in the short term.

"[Fast handover] is a problem, but it's largely solved by proprietary systems," says Brown. "There are plenty of systems that do handover. There's nothing wrong with [proprietary] systems unless you want mixed vendors in your network."

Brown says that other issues like handset availability and the number of access points are bigger issues right now for enterprise FMC services.

The lack of 802.11r isn't holding back enterprise FMC services, agrees BT's Woodbridge. But he says that the standard is necessary to make handovers faster and to make devices more power efficient than if handovers are handled at the application layer.

The task group members for 802.11r include Aruba Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: ARUN), Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM), Cisco Systems, Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT), Nokia, SpectraLink Corp. , and Texas Instruments Inc. (NYSE: TXN).

According to the WiFi Alliance, there are close to 100 phones that are WiFi certified and most of them are dualmode devices. ABI Research estimates that 340 million WiFi phones will ship in 2011, and 325 million of those will be dualmode WiFi/cellular.

— Michelle Donegan, European Editor, Unstrung

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