Network operators and handset manufacturers are continually developing new ways to connect people and devices. The latest trend in continuous connectivity is fixed mobile convergence (FMC), which merges a cellular phone with the features of an office PBX (think quick transfers, three-digit extension dialing, etc.).
UMA (the U once stood for unlicensed, but today the acronym is short for universal mobile access) is one technology driving convergence, as it enables smooth hand-offs between cellular and WiFi networks. This year has seen major developments in the UMA space. For starters, T-Mobile is testing a UMA solution that will allow users to seamlessly roam voice and data transmissions from T-Mobile’s cellular network to a router at home or a T-Mobile t-zone hotspot. Billed as Hotspot@home
, the add-on service offers unlimited calling over WiFi networks for $20 per month.
The service is targeted at consumers, but the benefits of the solution are easily applicable to road warriors. Philippe Winthrop, research director for wireless and mobility at Aberdeen Group, explains the offering this way: “Essentially,
T-Mobile is trying to extend coverage of its network by piggy-backing on broadband connections. So let’s say I have a T-Mobile phone that works great when I’m on the street, but as soon as I reach my home office on the 10th floor I lose coverage.” With Hotspot@home
, T-Mobile’s network creates coverage in Winthrop’s home office and doesn’t draw from his bank of cellular minutes when he makes WiFi calls.
T-Mobile began testing the solution in Seattle last October, and a national launch date is planned for later this year. For T-Mobile customers, all that’s required is an UMA-enabled router and a WiFi-capable handset. Though T-Mobile is, so far, the only carrier offering a UMA solution, handset manufacturers have been releasing WiFi-enabled smartphones for nearly a year now. In the fall of 2006, Nokia released the WiFi-enabled E70. Though it’s not UMA specific, according to Winthrop, any WiFi-enabled handset could in theory work on UMA converged networks with a simple fix sent to the phone. Nokia more recently announced the UMA-specific, WiFi-enabled 6136 and the 6086, both of which were used in Hotspot@home
Winthrop notes that HTC offers the largest selection of WiFi-enabled handsets, including the T-Mobile Wing (at right). RIM is also planning a WiFi-enabled handset, though no formal announcements have been made.
The biggest proponent of UMA technology is likely the UMA technology manufacturer Kineto Wireless. “UMA makes WiFi friendly to the mobile operator,” says Steven Shaw, associate VP of marketing for Kineto. Shaw believes carriers will deploy UMA solutions for two reasons: to encourage fixed mobile convergence, and as a measure to compete with VoIP. “With UMA, operators can leverage the cost advantages (WiFi is cheap) and performance (improved indoor coverage) to offer low-cost calling,” asserts Shaw.
Battery life has been a sticking point for dual-mode devices, as continually searching for compatible networks can be a drain. But enterprise mobility vendor Aruba Networks has been working on a feature of its Mobility Controller Switch called Battery Boost. So far in tests with HTC, as well as other handset manufacturers, Battery Boost has increased battery performance by a measure of six to eight times. Better battery life would certainly sweeten the deal for enterprises looking to deploy a converged solution.
As for UMA’s long-term prospects, Winthrop asserts, “It’s too early to tell how WiFi will play out for carriers, but right now flexibility is the thing .” //
Teresa von Fuchs is a technology writer in Austin, TX.
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