Depending on whom you ask, Fixed-Mobile Convergence (FMC), or technologies related to it, is either the hot mobility-related enterprise news this year, or the year's biggest technology flop. So who's right? Is this "the year of FMC"? What, exactly, is FMC anyway? And what are the benefits to be reaped by enterprises?
FMC is commonly defined as the merging of landline and cellular telephony so that both services are offered through one handset. The technology is particularly useful for enterprises with a largely mobile workforce.
With an FMC solution in place, calls placed to a user's PBX number would simultaneously ring both the mobile and the landline handset. The user's mobile phone typically is equipped with a soft phone client to enable the rich features of the PBX phone.
While there are a number of FMC solutions coming to market, and adoption is creeping up, Phillip Redman, research VP for Gartner Consulting contends that 2007-2008 is the period of the most "inflated expectations" and hype. By 2012, the market will be mature enough to see serious uptake in FMC solutions by enterprises in the United States.
Bob Hafner, managing VP for Gartner, identifies three types of FMC approaches.
Twinning should be a company's first FMC priority, especially if employees are highly mobile within the office, says Hafner. The emphasis should be on the productivity gains possible with the implementation of an FMC solution.
- Twinning is the most basic form. This simply involves the "single number service," i.e, merging one's office and mobile numbers onto one handset.
- UMA, commonly defined as unlicensed mobile access, is typically provider-based; consider T-Mobile's HotSpot @Home, for example.
- Dual-mode FMC is perhaps the most intriguing solution. This leverages WiFi-enabled phones - usually smartphones - to improve cellular coverage and conserve the user's plan minutes.
Most enterprises don't have a wireless network that's robust enough to support dual-mode FMC. A network upgrade may involve adding a few more access points (APs) throughout the facility to ensure WiFi access in all locations.
Tango Networks' FMC solution allows the mobile handset to be an extension of the PBX phone, says company president/CEO Alistair Westgarth. The company's research has found that 51% of mobile workers demand a single voice mailbox, and enterprises are regularly overspending on their cellular budgets by an average of 50%.
"People define FMC by dual-mode [technology]," says Westgarth. "[Tango's solution] works with any PBX, any mobile carrier, and handset - there's no dependency on dual-mode handsets."
The Siemens Enterprise Communications FMC solution relies on Nokia dual-mode phones because of the voice over WiFi quality they offer. Luc Roy, VP of enterprise mobility for Siemens, says about 50% of enterprises implementing the solution choose a voice wireless LAN because they want users to take advantage of Voice over WiFi.
Notably, the Siemens solution does not support the Windows Mobile, BlackBerry and iPhone platforms. As Roy puts it, "We started with those [platforms] that have the best VoWiFi quality." The system uses a box that sits next to the PBX; a call is transferred to WiFi if a strong enough signal is detected.
Inextricably tied into any dual-mode FMC solution is the performance of an enterprise's WLAN. When Siemens performs its audit to determine if a WLAN is suitable for voice, it finds that 80% of its customers have a network that is ready for VoWiFi. Those networks that need improvement to handle voice traffic were most likely implemented when enterprises were only considering data traffic, says Roy.
Agito Networks has a dual-mode FMC solution that incorporates the basic twinning concept onto a WiFi-enabled device. However, it uses location-based information to determine by which means a user should communicate.
During installation, an enterprise's facility is marked with RF tags at entrances and exits. The wireless network detects a user's presence in the building and automatically defaults to the company's WLAN. Upon exiting, the handset is flagged as being outside of the facility and then defaults to the cellular network.
WestEd, an educational research and development group, deployed Agito's solution across its 545 full-time and 200 part-time staff in 16 offices. "We have an increasing number of people working at home and in the field," says Richard Wenn, group director of I.T. services and co-director of WestEd Interactive. "FMC is the last layer as we move toward unified communications."
WestEd augmented its WiFi network to handle the Agito solution. Wenn says the company uses 802.11g with no immediate plans to transition to 802.11n. Employees use three types of dual-mode Nokia devices. WestEd is phasing out its PBX phone system and plans to issue desk phones only to employees who spend most of their time in the office.
"The [Agito] software is Web-based and gives me more data [on calling patterns] than I've ever had before," says Wenn. "I get to see how people are using voice."
Control issues are important in FMC solutions, says Vivek Khuller, president/CEO of FMC vendor DiVitas Networks. "You have to give the enterprise the same level of control and the same policies with mobile phones as with desk phones," he says. The DiVitas solution incorporates a server that resides beside the PBX and transitions calls between desk and cell phones. DiVitas supports Windows Mobile and Symbian devices with support for BlackBerry in the works.
Trying to improve in-building communication can spur an FMC solution. David Sproul, manager of emerging technologies and I.T. capital projects for University of California at San Francisco Medical Center (UCSFMC), says the typical doctor has become "a bandolero of communications. They're carrying multiple devices - Spectralink phone, pager, cell phone, Palm device or Tablet PC."
Two years ago, a physician approached Sproul and asked when the facility was going to improve coverage so a call wasn't dropped upon entering the building. "The cost for carriers to come in and improve coverage was astronomical," says Sproul.
The healthcare facility is in the second round of limited deployment with DiVitas. Sproul says that he is using Nokia's E61smartphone while other staff members are carrying different types of dual-mode Nokia devices.
UCSFMC had pervasive 802.11b through the facility and upgraded last year to Cisco's 802.11a/b/g network. While UCSFMC didn't have to add APs to make its network voice-ready, it had DiVitas reassess its wireless infrastructure, says Sproul. "If you've had your network in place for a few years, it's probably not engineered properly to handle voice," he adds.
Sproul expects to reduce the medical center's cell bills by 20% or 30% and realize its ROI within a year on an investment of less than $20,000.
The potential to improve employee productivity, achieve seamless voice connectivity and yield telecoms savings is tantalizing. But the FMC market will need to mature considerably before enterprises are widely enthusiastic about these solutions.
One potential drawback is the lack of support by several vendors for the BlackBerry platform, which dominates the smartphone landscape in the U.S. On the flipside, this could be an opportunity for Nokia and its Symbian platform - which commands the European cell phone market - to increase its share in North America.
Once the growing pains are out of the way, FMC should find a home in highly mobile workplaces, including large multinational enterprises and medical centers.