Is fixed mobile convergence a bust?

Five years ago, Motorola, Avaya and Proxim announced a partnership that was supposed to reduce companies telecom costs by up to 40 per cent and allow users to take their wireless phones away from their offices but still get all the features of their desktop phones.

In 2004, Basking Ridge, N.J.-based Avaya said it would resell a dual-mode phone – dubbed the CN620 – manufactured by Schaumberg, Ill.-based Motorola Inc. By working with gateways and access points designed by Proxim Corp., the CN620 was supposed to let users initiate calls over 802.11 wireless networks within the office, and have their calls automatically cut over to cellular networks if they moved out of range of the Wi-Fi access points.

Similarly, CN620 users initiating calls on the cellular network would have been able to walk into a building and continue their calls on the 802.11 network – without having to pay air time fees and without having to hang up and call the person again.

Today that partnership is all but forgotten and corporate users surveyed by the Yankee Group said they are unwilling to pay the necessary upfront costs for fixed mobile convergence (FMC).

“Most (users surveyed) do not have a wireless LAN capable of supporting voice,” said Joshua Holbrook, director of enterprise mobility a the Boston-based Yankee Group. “This is something the vendors are pushing hard but there is scant interest on the part of enterprises.”

As for the Motorola CN620, the package was considered proprietary by the industry, said Robb Henshaw, Proxim’s director of marketing and communications.

“It was never brought to market, to my knowledge, because it was determined that in order to take off, it had to be a standardized solution.”

An unscientific survey of Network World Canada readers failed to find anyone using the FMC. One reader who agreed to talk to us was John Payawal, director of IT for Metro Label Co. Ltd. of Scarborough, Ont., which makes labels for consumer products. He uses a dual-mode handset for his own personal use but does not plan to install the technology in his company.

“For us, there is not a business case to make that investment,” Payawal said. “I would not commit to an installation until the methodologies get fleshed out further. In a corporate environment, security has to be addressed.”

One vendor specializing in seamless roaming is Santa Clara, Calif.-based Agito Networks Inc., which makes the RoamAnywhere series of routers.

The hardware is designed to route calls from mobile phones on to the company’s private branch exchange, using Wi-Fi access points, and lets administrators define rules dictating when calls are routed to mobile phones or desk phones.

Certified to operate with IP PBXs made by from Cisco, Avaya and Nortel, the Agito RoamAnywhere Mobility Router is available in two models. The 2000 Series can accommodate up to 100 simultaneous users and prices start at US$9,995 for 25 users. The 4000 Series accommodate up to 1,000 users and pricing starts at US$25,000 for 100 users.

Agito this week announced the product also supports BlackBerry smart phones from Research in Motion of Waterloo, Ont.

If a worker makes a call over the cellular network and then moves to within range of the company’s Wi-Fi network, the call would be handed over without making the caller hang up and then call again.

An Ottawa reseller of Agito equipment, Combat Network Inc., is currently testing the device.

“The call has to be initiated through the PBX,” said Greg Curry, Combat Networks’ director of converged services. “It cannot be a direct call to the cell phone.”

This means the users, instead of giving out their cellphone numbers, would only give people their office numbers. But if they are not at their desks, the calls can be routed to their cell phones.

Curry explained how the seamless roaming works. The call has to go through the PBX to get to the cell phone and the Agito router has to be aware of the call. Then, when a user walks within range of the Wi-Fi access point, the router can create a Wi-Fi session, mix the audio from both the Wi-Fi and cellular networks, and then drop the cellular call.

One of the reasons Combat Networks decided to buy the device was to stop external users from calling workers’ cell phones directly.

“Once people know your cell phone number, they usually call your cell phone first,” he said. “We have people in the office spending more time on cell phones than on office phones.”

Curry has some advice for enterprises considering the technology.

“You need to ensure you have proper coverage,” he said, meaning you usually need one Wi-Fi access point for every 3,000 to 5,000 square feet of floor space. You also need the quality of service features on all access points, he said.

Combat Networks has not done a detailed calculations on its return on investment. But from what he has seen, Curry said users could expect to recover their costs in six months to a year.

“If you don’t need a desk handset, the ROI becomes even faster,” he said. Companies are looking at it not only to save money on cellular air time but to ensure that when employees leave the company and take their cell phones with them, customers who contact those employees are being connected to the company switchboard, not the employee who is no longer with the company.

Curry would not name any Combat Networks customers using the technology but at press time he was scheduled to demonstrate the service to two potential clients.

Still, to most enterprises, FMC is “a nice to have not a need to have technology,” Holbrook said.

A Canadian analyst agreed.

“Convincing someone that this is not just a nice to have but a must have, that’s where the problem lies,” said Ronald Gruia, program leader for emerging telecoms at Frost & Sullivan. He added FMC is convenient because it could help reduce telecom costs – depending on your agreement with your carrier.

“But some more pragmatic CIOs may say, ‘When you come back in, hang up and call the customer back from your desktop.’”

Gruia said 802.11 wireless can be productive for other reasons. For example, he said, users on a large campus could use their laptop PCs in conference rooms or cafeterias while connecting to the network.

“A lot of enterprises are using wireless LANs as the primary point of connectivity,” said Proxim’s Henshaw. “If you have lots of users using wireless LANs as the primary point of connectivity and a lot using it for voice, there are benefits to upgrading to 802.11n.”

802.11n is the IEEE standard for high-speed wireless, ratified last week.

Henshaw said another reason for considering voice over wireless LAN is carrier wireless networks are becoming congested.

“iPhones and data devices are completely overwhelming the 3G network,” he said. “Service providers realize not only is FMC not a threat, but it gives them additional value-added service and can help offload 3G networks, which are being hammered by these data devices.”


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