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Crunch time for convergence?
By Dan O'Shea

Jun 21, 2007 12:00 AM

In the shadow of NXTcomm, service providers contemplate fixed/mobile convergence's promise.

NXTcomm 2007 comes at a time when the concept of fixed/mobile convergence certainly seems more real and commercially viable than ever before.

Technology to allow handoffs between fixed-wireless coverage, like Wi-Fi hotspots, and mobile networks is commercially available today in the form of unlicensed mobile access (UMA) technology. Furthermore, the voice call continuity (VCC) specification within the IP multimedia subsystem (IMS) standard is commercially ready, if not yet widely deployed and used.

More broadly, the IMS standard also provides a clear road map for a more fully realized
vision of convergence: seamless voice, data or video service session continuity across multiple types of access networks—wireline and wireless—and devices.

More recently, femtocells have appeared on the scene, as an increasingly affordable way to provide wireless services indoors by deploying small base stations that operate on existing cellular spectrum.

But the ultimate test of commercial viability is to witness a service rolled out and performing in a real market environment. To that end, several service providers worldwide already have launched converged voice services.

Yet, the basic question remains the subject of healthy debate: Is FMC really here yet? The answer depends on several variables: what segment of the industry you are talking about, whom you choose to ask, and which services and trials you want to concentrate on.

“It’s a very broad term, and it is also an industry-wide topic and not just a segment-specific topic,” said Vikram Saksena, chief technology officer for Sonus Networks. “A lot of people were talking about it at the wireless show [CTIA’s Wireless 2007] and the cable show [NCTA’s The National Show]. It is very likely to be a very hot topic at NXTcomm.”

FMC continues to carry tremendous promise for all different kinds of service providers. For fixed-wireline telcos, the concept represents both the remedy to wireline access line revenue losses and an innovative option for capturing the voice revenue of tomorrow’s enterprise and consumer customer bases. With FMC, they could not only take back what they have lost, but create a reputation for future innovation that is as rich as their legacy of innovation.

For cable TV companies, FMC could be the next telephony tool in their competitive tool chests, a way to build upon the progress they have made in launching their own voice services and tie them together with their nascent efforts in wireless services to create more effective offerings in both industry segments. What’s at stake for them is not only the huge residential market in which they continue to butt heads with telcos, but also the challenge of some new frontiers—business and enterprise markets that are not dominated by any single type of service provider and cycle through new generations of technology rapidly enough that true service innovators may find quick rewards.

“We shouldn’t be surprised if the cable TV companies jump in very quickly,” Saksena said. “They could do it through femtocells. Some of them own spectrum already. Femtocells will create some immediate opportunities for non-mobile companies that have access to spectrum.”

Even wireless service providers, a role to which telcos and cable TV companies both aspire, have something to gain from FMC’s evolution. With their own FMC offerings, wireless service providers can create momentum for mobile substitution, a trend that ran rampant the last few years among the technologically adventurous before slowing down more recently. They can create a spot for themselves in the residential market while increasing the viability and utility of wireless services among business and enterprise users. In short, they finally can establish a reputation for in-building coverage that has long eluded them.

The FMC services available today for the most part rely on UMA technology, which allows a gateway transfer between two different IP-based wireless networks. “The only true FMC deployments out there today are UMA deployments,” said Ali Kafel, vice president of telecom sales at Stratus Corp.

Those deployments include BT’s Fusion service, Orange’s Unik, Telecom Italia’s Unico and offerings from Cincinnati Bell, Saunalahti in Finland, TeliaSonera Denmark and T-Mobile USA. With the exception of BT’s groundbreaking Fusion launch and Orange’s Unik, which the France Telecom subsidiary has successfully launched in several countries, most of those offerings were relatively quiet rollouts and limited to a single country or market. In T-Mobile USA’s case, it has only launched on a controlled basis in Seattle, though a further market expansion is said to be imminent.

Orange officials said on a recent Webcast that it has met expectations, but other service providers, such as BT, have declined to say how their uptake is progressing. Stratus’ Kafel said mixed experiences mean the industry must give FMC more time to develop a following.

Kafel said: “We’re still waiting to get some confirmation that customers actually want this service. BT may have had a slow uptake, but Orange had a fast pick-up. Just because someone else comes out slow, that doesn’t mean every operator will have the same experience. These early launches provide a data point that we can learn from—that each market is a little unique and each service provider is unique.”

Kafel added that the industry needs to observe several more service launches and wait until well into 2008 before broader judgments can be made.

Even if current commercial FMC services are not wowing industry observers, they may be delivering on at least part of their promise. In several cases, the earliest services have been by wireline telcos or companies with wireline affiliations at a time when those companies are trying to build bridges from their traditional networks into a new services future that is largely wireless. To avoid losing customers, they now need to make sure those bridges are open as soon as possible to demonstrate to their current customers that they can usher them into the future.

“It takes a little while to get any new technology right,” said Grant Henderson, vice president of product marketing for RadiSys, a vendor that is part of BT’s FMC deployment. “The FMC concept still has a little ways to go to work itself through the carrier world, but where the idea is really popular and people have embraced it first and foremost is with the enterprise customers.”

UMA continues to roll along as the current technology of choice. Chan Gundecha, senior manager of IMS and fixed/mobile convergence marketing for Motorola, said the vendor currently has about 15 UMA trials underway. However, he said Motorola isn’t fixated on only one FMC technology as the options continue to evolve. FMC solutions based on the VCC specification are becoming more frequent. U.S. independent telco Embarq recently launched an FMC service, Smart Connect, that uses VCC, and though other commercial VCC-based offerings are few and far between, Motorola’s Gundecha said it won’t remain that way for long.

“There are a smaller number of IMS [VCC] FMC trials that are going on,” Gundecha said, “but some operators are testing both VCC and UMA, and they will use UMA in one place and VCC in another. It depends on how far they are with IMS, and if IMS is being used to support some other applications.”

Stratus’ Kafel added that VCC will become more necessary as initial FMC users realize how much more device flexibility they want. “VCC is important for having a service with multiple device options to have a handover from a handheld device to a desktop. That’s beyond UMA, and you don’t need a full IMS network to do it either. It can be done with the current release of VCC.”

VCC also benefits a 3GPP-standardized technology road map that already has broad industry support. As IMS does become more fully implemented in networks, future versions of the VCC specification will support more kinds of handoffs, including handoffs of video sessions, said Pepe Lastres, director of solutions marketing for Motorola. “Everyone is looking at IMS because it’s smack in the middle of your network. It’s an evolution at the core of the network, which runs across multiple access technologies.”

If UMA, which also is a 3GPP standard, has a future in an IMS environment, it might depend on a third FMC technology: femtocells. These micro base stations using licensed spectrum and designed for the home have become the rage in recent months, and many service providers now have them in lab and field trials. Femtocells give mobile carriers a piece of the FMC action and allow them to offload indoor minutes from their public networks. They are also a potential option for wireline telcos with mobile subsidiaries or for cable TV companies with spectrum.

Part of the reason femtocells are winning support is because FMC solutions based on UMA and VCC require dual-mode handsets. Though an increasing array of dual-mode handsets are becoming available, service providers and users continue to bemoan the lack of affordable handsets. Femtocells can use regular mobile handsets. “That’s why you see some many people turning on to femtocells,” said Lastres, who emphasized that Motorola continues to support UMA, VCC and femtocell technology.

The femtocell craze is relatively early in its development, but it could provide a future path to service providers already familiar with UMA. That’s because UMA can provide the gateway mechanism between the public network and the indoor femtocell base station.

If many people continue to question FMC technologies, it might be because the future sounds so impressive. The services based on the technologies mentioned above do provide a degree of seamless connectivity, but they are not invisible. They also have limitations—service convergence beyond voice doesn’t exist yet. The reality that the critics have in mind is one in which any service is seamlessly transferable to devices, and network boundaries truly are invisible.

Arpit Joshipura, vice president of product management for Redback Networks, which is now owned by Ericsson, said, “We’re going through the first wave of convergence, and the future waves take it to a whole new level. … The second dimension will involve more applications and capabilities for the converged services, and in the third dimension, you will see applications like mobile TV and IPTV ported of the converged network layer.”

Joshipura says the key is to establish an IP aggregation layer at the network edge. “Service providers do not want to guess the future,” he said. “They are worried that if they purpose-build a network for a single type of service like IPTV or a wireless service, that it will be a waste. They want low-risk network architecture.”

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