Harmony Mobile handset includes Wi-Fi connectivity

Toronto-based Harmony Mobile is aiming at small and medium-sized business with what it calls Canada’s first converged GSM/Wi-Fi dual-mode phone service, but some analysts say the service has a bit further to go before it can make that claim.

Harmony Mobile said its CityHarmony wireless service will allows customers to make and receive calls in any Wi-Fi network they have access to, without restricting customers to a single wireless access point. Fixed Mobile Convergence (FMC) is an emerging trend in the wireless industry which aims to allow switching between provide both GSM and other networks such as Wi-Fi. Harmony said it is the first Canadian operator to endorse FMC with Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology.

Jonathan Richards, president and founder of Harmony Mobile, said the three major benefits of its service will be eliminating expensive roaming fees, improving in-building coverage where GSM signals have traditionally been weak and its integration ability with office private branch exchange (PBX) systems.

“I was using my phone on a recent business trip in New York and after adding the hotel’s Wi-Fi encryption key, all my phone calls were done over the Internet and I didn’t pay a dime in roaming,” Richards said. “As an operator we know roaming rates are fairly high, so when you use the Internet it’s a definite savings.”

Richards also explained the importance of integrating his cell phone with the company PBX, in order to easily dial office extension codes and provide better visibility to his clients on outgoing calls.

“When I’m dialing out, they always see me calling from my office,” Richards said. “And calls that come back to me can be delivered to my cell phone, the VoIP part of my phone, or even a phone that is off our network entirely.” But these advantages aside, industry observers question the “truly converged” capabilities of the service.

“It’s not really converged at all, as basically what they’re offering is a SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) based voice service that you can use with a dual-mode Wi-Fi phone,” Mark Tauschek, senior research analyst with Info-Tech Research Group, said. “You could theoretically use that service with any SIP-enabled VoIP phone. And the fact that there’s no seamless roaming between networks means this isn’t fixed mobile convergence.”

Tauschek said that users could get the same results, for instance, using a dual-mod phone using Rogers for GSM connectivity and Vonage to make Wi-Fi calls. Other industry analysts agreed, pointing to the lack of seamless roaming between the two distinct services.

“When I talk to my clients about Wi-Fi phones, they are usually looking and asking for an instant handoff between one network and the other,” Michael Rozender, an Oakville, Ont.-based consultant who specializes in wireless technology, said. “You need a sub-160 millisecond handoff for the call not to be dropped, and to my knowledge the Harmony technology does not do that.”

Harmony’s Richards said the handoff issue, or what he referred to as virtual call complete (VCC), is still being worked out. Calls on Wi-Fi, he said, are purely IP calls and when the caller leaves the Wi-Fi coverage it is dropped. Richards said Harmony is working on a feature that addresses this and hopes to have it available by early 2008.

“For now though, we feel the benefits of a Wi-Fi access for voice on a smartphone out ways the small inconvenience of a dropped call if you leave the Wi-Fi covered area,” Richards said. “After all, you lose mobile coverage in underground garages and elevators as well.”

Until then, Rozender said Canadian operators like Harmony will have to keep working in order to address this growing demand for seamless roaming. “Everyone of my clients would be delighted to have an FMC that works tomorrow because it obviously saves a lot of the cellular minutes that would hopefully be run of their free network,” Rozender said. “But the complexity of having real, cross-over capability between a cellular network and an enterprise network is a difficult task. You basically have to have both networks aware of each other and they have to be able to handoff in a sub-150 millisecond fashion, which is a pretty fast handoff to keep it from being dropped.”

Tauschek said while T-Mobile is starting to do this in the U.S., in general wireless carriers are very reluctant to “cannibalize themselves” by offering free calls over a Wi-Fi network as opposed to being able to charge for usage.

“It’s not terribly attractive to carriers, which is why they’ve held out for so long and which is why there are so few dual-mode devices available,” Tauschek said.

This is demonstrated, he said, by the fact that Harmony is only offering its CityHarmony service with two smartphones: the HP iPAQ 510 Voice Messenger and the Nokia E61/E61i.

Harmony currently uses the Fido GSM network and offers service in all of its areas across the country.

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