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Familiar Ring: Converging Mobile, Fixed Networks At Work

SAN FRANCISCO -- "Please leave a message and I'll get back to you. You can also reach me on my mobile phone, at …. "

How many hours of corporate productivity are wasted each year hunting people down for a business call? The solution could be fixed/mobile convergence, according to a panel at the CTIA Wireless IT and Entertainment show Wednesday.

Fixed-mobile convergence, or FMC, is the idea that business users should be able to have one phone number for business calls, while being able to access corporate applications and data in a variety of ways, via a variety of networks.

"Call the person, not the desk," explained Alastair Westgarth, COO of Tango Networks. Tango's Abrazo enables mobile phones to connect to a company's existing communications network.

Business is getting more and more mobile.

According to Larry Tichavsky, a solution engineer for Sprint, 30 percent to 50 percent of mobile calls are made within reach of a desk phone. Still, at this point, fixed phones are more reliable, and enterprises are leery of giving them up completely. Nor are they ready to throw away the investments they've made in their PBX systems.

That makes convergence solutions an interesting option.

"Enterprises are slowly determining the tradeoffs and making business case decisions," Tichavsky told the audience.

FMC could save them money. According to Westgarth, 25 percent to 30 percent of the average enterprise telephony budget goes to mobile. Switching to a converged, IP-based system can be 30 to 100 times cheaper than using the public telephone networks.

There are three approaches to FMC, each with advantages and challenges, according to the panel. Network-based solutions, owned and run by the wireless operator; on-premise software that essentially provides a gateway between corporate data and the public network; and hybrids, third-party software built in partnership with the carrier that adds a layer of mobility software between the enterprise and the carrier.

The challenge for the network operators is trying to connect so many different networks, according to Gary May, director of business development and enterprise solutions for Ericsson. "That takes time," he said. "The person I feel sorry for is the IT manager. Not only does he have to figure out each new technology and what the company's mobile strategy is, he has to understand how does it tie in with what's available from the carriers and what devices are out there."

The most visible element of FMC is a single sign-on similar to that of the PC world, said Manish Rai, senior director of product marketing and enterprise mobility for Motorola. "Ideally, you wouldn't have to switch networks," he said. For example, today, you might start a conference call at home on your mobile phone and then hang up and reconnect via fixed line when you get to your office. Wouldn't it be nice if your mobile phone automatically hopped onto the fixed network when you got to the corporate campus?

Besides seamless and true mobility, the enterprise needs security, said Nishi Kant, vice president of systems engineering for Azaire Networks, a provider of hybrid network technology. "People are not going to compromise security just to be mobile."

Finally, Kant said, any FMC project has to provide a great user experience without forcing people to change the way they habitually work.

Although each of the panelists had one or more solutions to push, they all advised caution.

Ericsson's May said businesses should take a "stepwise" approach. "The first step is cost control, understanding what are we spending on this," he said. "Next, you can start tying it into business objectives, and only then begin increasing personal and business efficiency."

And Tichavsky said, for a company that's willing to spend time shopping, there are plenty of products that can solve some of these problems that have been available for some time.

Westgarth cautioned businesses not to go on the hunt for the latest and greatest technology.

"Make sure you're solving a problem," he said. "If there's a solution out there that addresses specific needs, it's worth investing in it."

And the word from moderator Adam Kennedy, a director at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, was, "Perfect is the enemy of good enough."