UMA Isn't Universal -- Yet

By  Jessica Binns — February 01, 2008

Unlicensed mobile access (UMA) technology delivers voice, data and Internet service by enabling seamless roaming between local and wide area networks, usually between cellular and WiFi connections. Much ado has been made over the potential savings businesses could reap with UMA technology, not to mention the productivity that comes along with taking a consistently strong WiFi or cellular connection with you wherever you go.
For network operators, UMA offers a solution for improving cellular access once a user steps indoors, as in-building connectivity has traditionally been weaker than a cellular connection outdoors.
Chicken or Egg? ABI Research predicts that 65 million users will embrace UMA technology by 2012. Still, the market for UMA remains largely consumer-centric, with T-Mobile's HotSpot @Home, a device launched late last year that boosts cellular coverage indoors, being well received by consumers. UMA has gained more of a foothold in Europe, where telecoms such as Orange, Italia and T-Mobile are working to get UMA technology into the enterprise.
Steve Shaw, wireless evangelist for Kineto Wireless, a supplier of UMA technology, says wireless network operators see that new WiFi access points will help them win "the battle for the building. They want people to stop using fixed landlines."
T-Mobile, the only U.S. carrier currently offering UMA technology, lacks an internal group capable of enterpriseclass deployments and strategic planning. "AT&T and Verizon already have enterprise solution divisions," says Shaw. "You can envision them going after the [enterprise UMA market]."
Rick Pitz is senior product and business development manager for Certicom, which specializes in ECC cryptography for device and software security. Certicom is focused on security solutions for UMA handsets. Pitz says he's seeing a strong interest level from enterprises but notes "there's still alot of confusion and uncertainty about where UMA is going. The UMA market needs a major carrier to start supporting UMA to make it successful."
According to Pitz, the market for UMA is stuck in a chicken-or-egg phase, citing the relative dearth of WiFienabled handsets as a major hindrance to widespread UMA adoption. There's been consumer acceptance of UMA technology embedded in handsets, as seen in the popularity of WiFi-enabled devices such as the Nokia N95, and the fall 2007 launch of AT&T's Tilt.
Carriers see WiFi as a source of potential revenue, says Shaw. For example, although most smartphone users pay a set fee for network data services, devices that are WiFi-enabled seek out and use WiFi connections whenever possible, which means the cellular network is used only a fraction of the time. "It's a win-win situation," says Shaw. The carriers' big fear, he says, is that developers will put Skype onto mobile phones and bypass the cellular networks altogether -- a fear that has been realized to a small degree with the recent announcement of some Skypeenabled phones.
The number of UMA handsets has risen steadily, says David Confalonieri, VP of marketing for Extricom, a provider of WLAN services. In 2006, there were less than 100,000 such devices. In 2007, more than 1.5 million phones were WiFi-enabled. "VoWiFi is regarded to be the killer app for WiFi," says Confalonieri. "It will help carriers get back in the game."
In the year ahead, Shaw predicts the market will yield many more WiFi-enabled handsets, as manufacturers keep looking for the "edge" that sets them apart.
Unwiring the Enterprise One of the main challenges to overcome before businesses adopt UMA involves the "unwiring of the enterprise," says Shaw. Operators are reaching out to business customers but, according to Shaw, "There's a debate over who's responsible for maintaining the quality of [voice and data] services" -- the enterprise or the carrier. "There's an overlap of responsibility," he continues. "Enterprises are saying, 'I don't have control over broadband [access]. It's a Catch-22."
Building a business model for UMA technology is key. Pitz says carriers want a business model that works for them, while enterprises are focused on keeping their costs down.
Indeed, Kineto fields a steady stream of calls from enterprise executives, all of whom demand the same thing: a way to save money on voice and data services. UMA can potentially give them that, plus improved service, says Shaw.
Confalonieri says the main concerns enterprises have with UMA are the "mobility and the resiliency or robustness of the link." Wireless local area networks (WLANs) are data-centric; thus, a WLAN connection is "portable" but not "mobile." Enterprise applications "must maintain a steady connection," says Confalonieri. "The problem is [applications] that don't jump well between access points."
Extricom's service does not require a "handoff" between cellular and WiFi connections, making Extricom the only provider offering "actual mobility of a wireless connection," says Confalonieri. Most vendors use access points (APs) as discrete units. Extricom employs APs to create a wireless continuum, in which the user associates to the whole network, rather than to a specific AP, which enables a seamless wireless experience.
Enterprises need an infrastructure that is easy to deploy, says Confalonieri. WLAN is traditionally difficult to install. "How many calls to business help desks are about dropped calls? Voice is an unforgiving application. Vendors are building in a lot of [features] to compensate for not being able to [maintain] a call," he says. Adding to the challenge is the fact that different brands of WiFi cards have slightly different behavior. Enterprises want all of their WiFienabled devices to behave in the exact same way. "The technology needs to become not client-agnostic but clientimmune," says Confalonieri. "If you want enterprises to look at WiFi as stable and not rely on the jack in the wall -- improve the connection."
UMA vs. IMS? According to Pitz, IMS (IP multimedia subsystems) technology may seriously affect UMA's larger market potential, and the femtocell craze is driving that. "UMA got off to a false start a few years ago," says Pitz. "There was lots of hype and then people thought [the technology] was dead."
However, UMA is easier than IMS for carriers to deploy and scale; IMS requires a huge infrastructure and investment. Ultimately, IMS remains better suited to the consumer market, while UMA has more potential for enterprise adoption.
Network operators have to figure out a few things, too. The decision of when to hand off a cellular call to a WiFi connection would be specific to each carrier. Pitz says the networks develop their own algorithms to identify when calls should be transitioned. There are challenges to overcome in the handoff itself, says Pitz. For example, what happens when the nearest cellular and WiFi signals are both weak? One step in the wrong direction may drop a call. And if a user leaves a WiFi connection too quickly, the call gets tied up. "These issues need to be addressed," says Pitz. "The phone itself can't predict that these problems will happen." //


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