It has been dismissed as the ‘Rover 75 of the phone business’ – so long in development that it was out-of-date before it launched. But like the much-maligned upmarket car, fixed-mobile convergence (FMC) technology may make early sceptics eat their words.
FMC offers a solution to a common business problem: runaway mobile phone costs. As mobile handsets have become the primary phone for many users – even when in the office – the role of the standard landline has been called into question. The convenience factor of a single, roaming device, with an easy-to-use personal contacts book, makes the mobile considerably more appealing to many.
But few business mobile users – outside of the financial controllers and accounts clerks – understand the cost implications of that convenience and accessibility. According to telecoms advisory group Analysys, around 80% of corporate telephony spending now goes on calls made to or by mobiles.
While few companies would want to scale back on the use of mobile phones, plenty are actively seeking ways of reducing some of the associated costs. And by providing a handset that can automatically and seamlessly switch between the ubiquitous mobile network and the much cheaper fixed network (most commonly connecting over broadband), FMC technologies aim to do just that.
Of course, there is no universal FMC ‘solution’ at this stage: there are a number of competing approaches and technologies behind different systems. And while this ‘easy win’ may appeal to the cost-conscious manager, FMC’s impact within the enterprise could yet be more profound: as well as helping business managers get a handle on mobile costs, its debut marks the next stage in the evolution of business communications.
When, in 2006, telecoms analyst group Disruptive Analysis described FMC as “searingly hot”, its assessment probably owed more to the bullish marketing of telecoms vendors than to real end-user demand. For its advocates, FMC is heralded as a major technological advance, yet the level of end-user adoption has yet to support the sector’s gushing claims.
In many ways, FMC had an inauspicious birth. UK telecoms giant BT was first out of the door with its Fusion offering in late 2005.
The initial, consumer-only product received an unenthusiastic welcome from many reviewers: it connected to broadband stations via Bluetooth and its launch tariff structure seemed much closer to a mobile pricing plan than a landline one. But with the launch of WiFi/GSM-based systems for both consumers and businesses in late 2006, cost structures have now been flattened, with connections made through a Fusion Hub in the office or through BT Openzone WiFi hotspots at airports, stations and elsewhere costing between 75% and 90% less than standard mobile calls. That may still be more expensive than simply picking up a landline or connecting through an ultra low-cost service such as Skype, but it represents a large potential saving for business.
Take-up in the first 18 months of Fusion has been modest – only 50,000 handsets are in use, according to researchers at Ovum. But BT is now marketing the service heavily to businesses and is extending the service outside of the UK, notably to Germany. Other operators with a substantial fixed-line business – such as France Telecom – are beginning to test the market too with their versions of corporate FMC.
That gives industry watchers such as ABI Research the confidence to predict a sharp rise in corporate demand for FMC technology: it predicts enterprise spending will exceed $450 million within four years.
One early adopter of BT’s Fusion offering is Leeds City Council, where it has been implemented at two sites, allowing users to make calls from their mobile handsets when offsite, with their calls switched through a Cisco-based WiFi network to its PBX when in the office.
But FMC has plenty of detractors who regard it as a non-starter. Critics seize on the fact that the technology’s biggest supporters are fixed-line operators, saying it is a ‘white elephant’ technology that only appeals to operators desperate to protect their revenues from the seismic changes underway in the telecoms industry.
One such voice is Dr Sachio Semmoto, founder and CEO of Japanese mobile company eAccess. “I don’t believe that [FMC] is anything other than a short-term strategy,” he argues.
In Japan, the mobile phone is already the preferred communication device – cost reduction will be based on advances in cellular technologies such as HSDPA (high speed download packet access), he believes.
Others point out that the use of WiFi in FMC may be more problematic than has been initially apparent to users. While many companies, such as credit card giant Visa, have been seduced by WiFi’s promise of convenient connectivity for staff, existing deployments of wireless local area networks (WLAN) may not be suitable for campus-wide FMC rollout.
The reason is simple: while WiFi clouds will cover communal areas where staff congregate, such as cafeterias and open plan offices, they may start to drop calls or provide weak service in stair wells and lifts – causing problems for phone users expecting ubiquitous coverage, notes Margaret Hopkins, an analyst with telecoms advisory group Analysys. “There’s a big difference between the typical corporate WiFi deployment and the sort you need for FMC,” she emphasises.
“FMC allows companies to regain control over mobile and fixed networks.”
Iris Heinonen, OnRelay
The lack of handset options at this stage and the relatively poor battery life of many phones has also hindered adoption – although these problems are likely to lessen if demand ramps up.
Other concerns, such as ensuring a seamless handover between fixed and mobile, seem to have been successfully addressed. Orange Business Services, for example, orchestrates the handover by creating a ‘conference call’ session where both the mobile and fixed networks are present, explains Jason Ellis, head of business convergence at the company.
When a handset calling via a mobile network detects that it is in range of its wireless base station, a connection is automatically set up between the handset and the base station; this connection operates like a conference call that has been muted, so the channel is open, but initially inaudible. Once the handset is confident it has established a stable connection, the call is transferred to the fixed line.
Earning its stripes
Notwithstanding the mix of successes and setbacks, enthusiasm for FMC remains undimmed, particularly among equipment makers. Germany’s Siemens, for example, launched its enterprise FMC solution, HiPath Mobile Connect, in early 2007; and several start-ups such as DeVitas Networks, Tango Networks and OnRelay have all started shipping enterprise FMC products.
Are they in tune with customer demand? Some analysts are unsure, especially when the focus is solely on the reduction of mobile bills. IT advisory group Gartner warns that the difficulties of implementing a FMC strategy could actually force up costs, eroding potential savings – at least while the technology is still in its infancy. According to Gartner, up until 2010, 90% of businesses that implement FMC to reduce costs will likely fail to meet those expectations.
But that is not to say that FMC cannot justify its presence on other grounds: the real boon from FMC is not about costs, suggests Phillip Redman of Gartner, it is “the need to incorporate cellular services into the corporate telecom structure.”
For all the excitement generated about corporate mobility (this magazine’s most recent Effective IT research indicates that mobility is still one of the most rewarding IT strategies), there still remains a huge disconnect between the mobile phones distributed liberally to staff and the rest of the corporate IT infrastructure.
At a time where businesses are moving inexorably towards an IP-based communications network, that divide looks artificial. And it also underscores an absence of control.
With so many calls bypassing the corporate network business leaders must be aware of the compliance risks that are introduced, says Iris Heinonen of FMC start-up OnRelay. Not only does OnRelay provide an FMC handset – with all the associated benefits of a single voicemail, calendar and phonebook – but it also undertakes the necessary call logging and provides links to customer relationship management and billing systems. “It allows companies to regain control over mobile and fixed systems,” says Heinonen.
But for those not ready to commit to a full-scale FMC deployment there are alternatives. Mobile extension technology from the likes of Ericsson and Mitel allows mobile handsets to be connected to the enterprise PBX.
One immediate benefit is that users are given a single number that allows them to “take the call from the device that is most expedient or cost effective, depending on where the user is,” according to Kelly MacMillan, market specialist at networking vendor Mitel Networks.
She believes that FMC is still in its early days for the enterprise. And as a staging post on the journey towards FMC, routing calls through the corporate PBX provides a quick win that helps bring the mobile back under corporate control.
A call for unity
No matter what the steps may be, the ultimate goal is a unified communications infrastructure where all devices are connected to, and controlled through, an IP-based network. As such, the method of achieving fixed-mobile convergence becomes less important.
A case in point is The Royal Hospitals Trust in Belfast, which has implemented a combined voice and data WiFi network that provides it with the benefits of improved communications without going near a mobile phone network. Instead, the campus-wide network, deployed by service company Telindus, lets staff talk through a Vocera ‘badge’ communicator by simply pressing a button on the badge and asking the system to route a call by name, title, or function. That system can also be integrated with the Trusts’ IP network.
In an environment where mobile use is restricted because of potential risks to sensitive medical equipment, the Trust has been able to provide a safe and convenient way for staff to make voice calls, as well as improving the ability to access emails, calendars and other applications.
As that suggests, the combination of WiFi and fixed lines is opening up all kinds of possibilities. As yet, most business leaders do not have a loyalty to any given form of FMC – and for good reason: FMC is not an end in itself; it provides a means of taking control of mobile communications in terms of cost, security, compliance and other facets.
Over the next few years it is highly likely that businesses will adopt a tactical approach to FMC. But given the pace of innovation in business comms, a separate landline will look increasingly anachronistic
German automotive giant BMW Group has a compelling vision of its future work environment, where workers can seamlessly collaborate using a single platform for telephony, instant messaging, email or any device that they choose. This is a frictionless world of communications where ‘archaic’ PBXs will be replaced by software and industry-standard servers and result in dramatic economic benefits.
BMW’s views are indicative of the faith business leaders are putting in common communications platforms – based on the Internet Protocol (IP) – to provide better and cheaper methods for employees and trusted partners to collaborate.
Much of that initial focus has been on unifying email, instant messaging and increasing the use of voice over IP (VoIP). And many want to add mobile telephony to that list.
Advocates of fixed-mobile convergence (FMC) promote it as one way of achieving this; mobile operators may see network developments as the way forward, either through the 3.5G networks they are currently constructing or through what is termed ‘next generation networks’ (NGN), which will be based on Internet technologies, including IP and Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) and the Session Initiation Protocol. Either way, mobile is set to become part of the IP family.
But despite the received wisdom that unified communications represents a logical progression for enterprises, not everyone is convinced. Dean Bubley, founder of IT industry advisory house Disruptive Analysis, says that he is “rapidly becoming sceptical” about enterprise unified communications.
It might just be possible in highly regimented organisations, where users accept “whatever the IT department foists on them”, he says. “But the idea that it will stop employees running their own parallel communications channels, is nonsense.” Skype, SMS, even MySpace will continue to be used by staff.
Expecting a unified communications strategy to preclude users’ more informal communication tools may be self-defeating. But even accepting a degree of non-conformity leaves a window open for business to exploit. Unified communications can give users a richer experience, where ‘presence’ can help users communicate in the most expedient manner – as defined by the user.