The Fire Under Wi-Fi/Cellular Convergence

Maybe too many cooks will get this stew finished a little bit sooner.

The goal is fixed-mobile convergence, the merger of fixed and wireless networks into a single system. The end result would allow users to have just one phone number and one voicemail account. Diverse collaboratives around the world have been pushing to create the standards that will make it a reality.

Now, the rise of MobileIGNITE — short for Mobile Integrated Go-to-Market Network IP Telephony Experience — promises to drive the effort. Maybe not all the way to the finish line, but a least a good bit further down the road.

Founded by Bridgeport Networks, whose technology underlies the group’s efforts, MobileIGNITE draws its membership from the ranks of service providers and mobile, SIP and IMS vendors. Members include Aruba, Boingo, VeriSign and many others.

MobileIGNITE Executive Director Leo Nikkari says fixed-mobile convergence may be closer than some realize. “We have the basic capability at the network level, the SS7-based mobile networks and the SIP-based fixed network,” he says. “We know how to exchange the information to make the signal go across the networks.”

What we don’t have is a phone that can shoulder the load.

“We still need a convenient appliance, a signal-converged or dual-mode device,” Nikkari says, adding that in all likelihood the first of these will hit the street early next year. The closest thing now, at least in the United States, is probably the very high-end MC70 multi-function device from Symbol Technologies.

MobileIGNITE is hardly alone in its efforts to forge fixed-mobile standards. In a sign that convergence is coming closer, a number of groups have come to the fore with ideas about how it might be achieved.

The Wi-Fi Alliance is a global, non-profit industry trade association with more than 200 member companies. Through its efforts to promote the growth of wireless local area networks (WLANs), the group also is moving its members toward a fixed-mobile future.

In Europe, the U.K.-based Fixed-Mobile Convergence Alliance (FMCA) has the backing of some major names including BT, Brasil Telecom, Korea Telecom, NTT, Rogers Wireless, Swisscom, and more. This alliance of telecom operators is working to accelerate the development of fixed-mobile convergence products and services.

Others are looking for convergence in another direction. The Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) group, for example, encourages the development of technologies that would allow calls to be made both in Wi-Fi hotspots and over mobile wireless networks, using dual-mode phones.

Analysts, though, say the fixed-mobile model offers a more practical scenario. In an August 2005 report, Frost & Sullivan singles out MobileIGNITE’s work as preferable to UMA.

The report notes that UMA does not fully support Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) , nor is it tangibly aligned with Internet Protocol for Multimedia Subsystems (IMS). MobileIGNITE, on the other hand, focuses on SIP, an emphasis the researchers say provides a longterm solution for carriers looking to embrace a converged future.

Putting aside technology questions, there looms the larger issue of financial models. How will converged calls be billed? How will the money be managed?

It’s all still up in the air. “There is no single model for this market,” Nikkari says. Management of the service, he says, likely will depend on who makes the initial investment to upgrade the networks, and which service providers are best positioned to offer the service to their customers. “It depends on the market and on who the companies are that have a lead strategy.”

This much is clear, Nikkari says. Whatever else happens in the coming year, Wi-Fi will play a critical role in the evolution of convergence technologies. In the first place, it is already here. “Wi-Fi is huge because it is an immediately available capability to support a wireless VoIP option,” he notes. Given existing cellular and wired capabilities, “we think it’s a great marriage.”

In particular, Wi-Fi provides a common default between cellular technologies that don’t interoperate with one another, such as GSM and CDMA, thus simplifying roaming.

In a strict business terms, Nikkari says, this means that those in the Wi-Fi world ought to begin, if they have not already, to look at forging ties with others in the convergence food chain. “If you want to generate revenue in the next few years, taking a look at Wi-Fi as a backstop for how you originate and terminate mobile calls in the in-building environment is a huge opportunity,” he says.

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