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FMC’s reality check
By Sarah Reedy

Jun 5, 2008 11:13 AM

NXTcomm08 promises to talk about what is, rather than what could be. Nowhere is this more important than in the oft-hyped, oft-disappointing arena of fixed-mobile convergence (FMC). At this year’s conference, exhibitors will tell you that FMC -- and the more general idea of convergence -- is today being defined by the services it enables, not by the paltry array of devices available today. And, they’ll tell you, there is cause for optimism.

According to ABI Research, the FMC market is set to expand to 250 million users by 2012. The research firm believes 2008 will be a year of trials as femtocell technology begins to become available and operators look to move into commercial deployments. FMC can come in the form of service integration as well -- one phone number, one voicemail to check, one bill to pay. As such, these millions of users won’t necessarily be using FMC devices.

“When people see only two handsets out of 14 [for FMC], that is going to narrow the market interested in this application,” said Andrew Randall, vice president of marketing for MetaSwitch. “That is pretty well-recognized, but that will evolve. You’ll see more and more handsets getting these capabilities, so that wireless carriers can offer it across the range of products they stock. The other area of interest is around the wireline carrier’s approach to FMC. In particular, some of the market research we’re seeing is that people’s key concerns are not around having a single device.”

From the customer perspective, Randall said the real issue is merging separate identities rather than devices. Consumers are tired of maintaining three separate numbers and checking their voicemail on their work phone, home phone and cell phone. They want the discontinuity addressed so that they are only picking up their messages once from one number. “From the user experience, it is all about how do you make the telecommunications services more joined up across the wireline and wireless world,” he said.

MetaSwitch, which works with carriers Sprint and Embarq, will use NXTcomm08 to showcase its FMC and voice-over IP (VoIP) platforms. Randall said that his company will not be alone in using the conference to help his customers answer the questions: How can we be relevant to our subscribers in the next 10 to 20 years? How can we ensure that we come more than a dumb pipe provider?

“This has to be around layering apps on top of traditional phone service, integrating with a Facebook or Google or integrating into IPTV service or cell phone,” he said. “They have to find the way to make the wireline service more applicable to the rest of the telecom services that the subscriber is getting.”

This has long been a concern of carriers, but has only been exacerbated by the increasing number of consumers ditching their landline service. According to the latest government estimates released last month, about 63 million American adults either don’t have a landline at home or hardly use it if they do. For carriers like Qwest Communications that don’t operate a wireless business, FMC is a potential solution to the increasing number of customers abandoning their landline phones in favor of mobility.

From the perspective of IP quality tester Spirent, which will be announcing FMC-related news at the conference, convergence is about being able to test this on any device at anytime, anywhere. Tamer Abbas, director of marketing communications, said that the mobile experience around the broadband experience of the mobile user should be focus number one. 4G technologies like LTE and WiMAX will come next.

“I think it is becoming clear that the mobile world and the broadband world will start talking to each other much more and working on a lot of different use cases to merge users together,” Abbas said. “The predominant factor is service providers are starting to buy broadband and wireless technologies and putting them under one company…There seems to be a momentum right now, and there will be service providers in the future that have both pipes and sell content to both users. The users will start to demand this once they see the content on both networks, and they’ll look for the quality of experience while doing that. That is the trend we see coming in the next five years or even further.”

NXTcomm08 exhibitor Juniper Networks, an active player in the IP infrastructure and security aspects of FMC, considers three key elements that are causing service providers to make the move to FMC. First and foremost is service velocity. Whereas historically with legacy systems, it took years to develop new services, business needs now dictate that services must be brought to market in a matter of days. Second is network monetization and third is security. Often service providers find themselves left out of the revenue-sharing model dominated by content providers. Convergence on the transport layer, operational level and security level can change the game for service providers dealing with these three issues.

“The market is already in full agreement that we will have this converged transport packet layer,” said Leonid Burakovsky, director of mobile and FMC segment at Juniper Networks. “After this agreement, we are moving forward and seeing about the business models. This is where network monetization comes into play…There is a business need for policy and identity management. It should be done in converged layer between different layers.”

The telephony business started as a simple, one layer proposition – a landline handset that made voice calls. Since its inception, voicemail, cellular telephony, advanced features and Web browsing – to name a few – have been added to the handset, bringing new layers of complexity not originally anticipated. Now, FMC can be thought of as a movement back to that original level of simplicity – without sacrificing any of the new features. Take the consumer favorite iPhone, for example. It features a simple user interface disguising many layers of complexity and interactivity. Simplicity is clearly priority number one – FMC’s promise of one device performing many functions is a potential means to that end.

In the move back to simplicity, it may be hard to live up to the hype built up around FMC in the past few years. But, NXTComm08 exhibitors might not be interested in trying to. Instead, most will use their three show days talking about what really is happening in the market. If potential use cases are mentioned, it will be in the context of how to get there – and as quickly as possible.

“Where we are at is seeing the hype turning into reality,” MetaSwitch’s Randall said. “It is not the biggest splash at trade shows, but most of the conversations revolve around what is really happening. If you go to booths, you’ll hear a lot of people talking about it.”

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