Wi-Fi/Cellular Convergence Takes Center Stage

By Eric Griffith

February 09, 2006

Expect big promises in the world of FMC (fixed/mobile convergence) at the 3GSM World Congress next week.

It probably won’t be a reality for many end users this year, but the industry is creeping ever closer to the holy grail of fixed/mobile convergence (FMC), allowing a phone to hand off seamlessly from a cellular/3G network to a Wi-Fi-based VoIP (or VoWi-Fi) network, and vice versa.

“This is the start of a journey,” says Frank Hanzlik, Managing Director of the Wi-Fi Alliance. “The ecosystem is coming together, but this year is a lot of early stage stuff. It’ll take time to go from the early adopters to the mainstream.”

The goal with FMC is ubiquitous coverage. Brian Caskey, Vice President of Worldwide Marketing at UTStarcom, puts it like this: “How many times have you been on a call and lost it as an elevator door shuts, or your house coverage is so bad you go to the front door to get better reception? 70 percent of houses have at least one cell phone, and 14 percent use a cell as a primary phone — and 26 percent would if in-building coverage was better.”

“A lot of times, technology is driven by vendors and service providers, but now it’s consumers who desire FMC even if they don’t know it,” says Caskey.

Of course, consumers won’t be alone in reaping the benefits of FMC. Revenue for VoWi-Fi in the enterprise space will be shooting up to $1.1 billion US by 2010, according to a panel of 1,800 IT decision makers surveyed by InfoTech.  And the bulk of that money will come from deployment of dual-mode cellular/Wi-Fi products, not Wi-Fi phones alone. All it's going to take is a critical mass of FMC products.

What’s Up at 3GSM?

FMC companies are more than ready to get a jump-start on going mainstream. Next week's 3GSM World Congress 2006 show in Barcelona, Spain will have over 950 vendors in attendance, with many ready to  debut FMC products.

For example, UTStarcom, which  has been making Wi-Fi equipped handsets for a while, will take the wraps off Continuity, its blanket brand name for its FMC product line. Continuity will feature a server based on the company’s software-switch (softswitch) platform coupled with handsets supporting Wi-Fi and GSM. Trials of Continuity have already started with Brasil Telecom, a mobile operator with 12 million subscribers in Brazil.

Convergin yesterday announced its Wireless Convergence Server that will let carriers and providers make hand-offs from Wi-Fi to cellular without changing the level of service to the end user. The company is a member of MobileIGNITE, an industry association promoting FMC, which has 32 other members including Boingo, Aruba Networks, Kyocera, Net2Phone, PCTEL and many others. BridgePort Networks, which launched MobileIGNITE before it spun out as an independent group, says its demo at 3GSM will be “the first instance of seamless IMS voice call handover between GSM and Wi-Fi Networks.”

Calypso Wireless will be showing off a Wi-Fi/GSM VoIP smartphone running Microsoft Windows Mobile at the show. Calypso has its own patented tech for seamless roaming called ASNAP.

Kineto Wireless, which helped develop the Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) technology, said this week that it has new client software out supporting the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) version of the UMA specification (also known as Generic Access Network, or GAN). Kineto recently completed some UMA call testing with networking giant Cisco Systems. Cisco plans to help operators offer UMA in the future, letting them use one AAA server to track users on both public Wi-Fi and cellular networks. Philips is also working with Kineto on UMA technology for Philips’ Nexperia cellular system.

That’s just a drop in the bucket for the forms FMC will take at the show. Despite all this, again, the immediate future is for early adopters and pilot programs. InfoTech says the breakout period for sale of FMC devices will be 2007-2008, because prices won’t dip below $400 per handset until then.

The Wi-Fi Alliance’s Hanzlik is perhaps a touch more optimistic in the outlook, noting that the handset vendors, chip makers and carriers are all on board. In fact, last year, carriers like AT&T, BT, Korea Telecom and others  formed an industry group called the Fixed Mobile Convergence Alliance to push FMC from their perspective. FMCA has already endorsed the position that all dual-mode handsets should also be certified for interoperability by the Wi-Fi Alliance.

Eventually, the Alliance will even have a standard to work with that addresses FMC directly. The IEEE 802.11 Working Group has a Task Group U working on 802.11u, which Hanzlik describes as “an umbrella looking at how Wi-Fi works with disparate networks.” The Alliance will have more to announce about FMC developments in April, in time for the CTIA Wireless conference in Las Vegas.

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