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NXTcomm08 vendors tackle FMC
By Kevin Fitchard

Jun 11, 2008 12:51 PM

It may be some time before we think of the networks of Verizon Communications and Verizon Wireless -- or those of AT&T and AT&T Mobility -- as single unified platforms, but NXTcomm08 vendors are looking to help them down the convergence path. The first stop on the way is the femtocell.

While femtocells are most often thought of as a means for wireless providers to expand capacity and coverage, they represent one of the first technologies to actually link the wireline network to the mobile network. Femtocells act like mini-base stations, transmitting and receiving as a tiny cell site at a home or business, but they connect back to the network using a DSL or cable modem connection. Many wireless operators aren’t using femtocells as a convergence technology, merely commandeering the home broadband line as backhaul for their wireless service. But there is an opportunity to meld the wireless and the standard array of home network services with wireless.

“Most vendors tend to think of femtocells as shrunk-down macro-cellular towers,” said Alan Lefkof, corporate vice president and general manager of Motorola’s broadband solutions group. “We have a carrier business, but we also have a large home networking business. We’re taking all of the software we’d normally put in the home gateway and putting it into the femtocell.”

Most of those features would be authentication, provisioning and management features standard to ADSL modems that could be extended to the mobile network, but Motorola is also building gateways that take the functionality of an ADSL gateway and femtocell gateway and putting them in the same box, Lefkof said. That would allow carriers to offer dual-network services that can run on both the wireless and home network simultaneously. For instance a gaming service could have both mobile and wireline components, allowing customers to link to use the same gateway to link to multiplayer gaming servers regardless of whether they are doing it from a smartphone or a dedicated gaming console.

This kind of service, however, requires that the femtocell and wireline gateway be integrated, and in turn, they’re designed to appeal to an operator that offers both wireline and wireless services, Lefkof said. “We will have a plain vanilla femtocell for wireless-only operators, but the bigger volumes will be in markets where carriers have an integrated network.”

Motorola will be showing off its femtocell products to customers at NXTcomm08, though the full-functionality of its offering isn’t yet available in the U.S. The vendor is currently trialing its femtocells with three European operators and is therefore running its femtocells on European UMTS frequencies. In Europe, the demand for femtocells is driven by capacity, Lefkof explained. As carriers start offering more broadband data subscriptions there, networks are starting to overload, leading them toward solutions that provide cheap capacity to individual users. The U.S. market, however, is being driven by the need for coverage -- filling in the dead zones in people’s homes. The end result is that carriers are likely to subsidize femtocells in Europe, Lefkof said, while carriers are likely to offer femtos as value-added services to their customers, having them incur the cost of the product.

Nortel is also taking a crack at fixed/mobile convergence at NXTcomm08. Rather than showcasing gear, though, the vendor is touting applications. Nortel will be demoing an array of FMC applications ranging from its converged mobility platform, which allows mobile phones to move seamlessly between the enterprise LAN and the wide area cellular network, to Call Grab, a platform that permits the phone to act as a remote extension on the PBX without the introduction of advanced IP network architectures. Another application, Nortel is highlighting is an SMB solution that extends SIP functionality to a cluster of phones, allowing a central server to manage and route calls that are actually traversing the wide area network.

Nortel is trying to extend FMC to carriers and customers in any scenario, developing applications that can either be tightly integrated with the phone, enterprise LAN and next-generation networks or can ride over legacy networks and basic handsets, said Sita Lowman, leader of converged core and applications marketing for Nortel’s carrier networks group. “Some require clients, some don’t. Some require direct connections into the HLR [home location register], some don’t,” she said. “There is no ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ to either approach. It’s all about what the carrier wants to do.”

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