Fixed Mobile Convergence, Episode One : Please mind the step !

Glenn Seiler’s recent post (Report from the International Telecommunications Union Conference) gave readers an interesting insight into developments in the world of Fixed Mobile Convergence. As Glenn points out, FMC attempts to "enrich our every-day lives by making it easier to do the things we value most". Essentially FMC is about making technology work the way we want it to rather than leaving us struggling simply to make it work.

However, the reality is that FMC will only be realized in small steps. Like a baby finding its feet for the first time, some steps will seem bold and assured while others will seem uncoordinated and divergent. I thought in this post I would outline my thoughts about the first faltering steps along the path to Fixed Mobile Convergence.

Let’s start by breaking FMC down into its component parts…

Fixed refers to communication technology we use from a fixed location. With FMC it normally refers to voice calls made from either the home, the office or, for example, a local coffee shop using VoIP technology over a WiFi network and a broadband connection (a.k.a. VoWLAN). WiMax may also play a role in the fixed network in the future. The fixed network is often thought of as being easy to implement and relatively cheap to use.

Mobile refers to communications via the mobile/cellular radio access network (e.g. GSM or CDMA) which is characterized as being convenient, flexible and wide-ranging.

Convergence is about bridging the gap between the fixed and the mobile worlds.

The convergence part of this story is where things get complicated. That’s because it’s happening at several levels and in several steps. I’ll start by outlining three broad levels at which I believe convergence is occurring:

  • Service level convergence
    Convergence at the service level has already begun with a flurry of mergers, acquisitions and agreements between various service providers. A good example is the $1.6Billion purchase of Virgin Mobile by the UK’s largest Cable TV operator NTL (enabling them to offer a quad-play service). Ultimately service providers know that technology convergence is coming and are now working to attract (and to lock-in) subscribers by offering "bundled" service packages covered by a single bill. Bundled services and, more importantly, future technology convergence, drives their need for some level of control over both the fixed and the mobile networks.
  • Device level convergence
    For users, the most obvious bridge between the fixed and mobile worlds is the use of a single handset to communicate via both networks. Converged handsets are able to connect over both fixed and mobile networks and, in an ideal world, can also seamlessly handover a call between the two. Once FMC is fully realized, converged handsets will become feature rich multimedia devices and will offer application support which current mobile/cellular devices are unable to offer.
  • Network level convergence
    Convergence at the network level opens up the possibility of bridging the fixed and mobile worlds while also adding value through the addition of rich application support. This enables service providers to fully reap the benefits of content delivery and users to enjoy a full multimedia experience. These new features will be reliant on deployment of an IP Multimedia Subsystem or IMS (a subject I’ll cover in a future post). In reality, IMS is still in its infancy with the result that current attempts to implement a network converged FMC solution can appear somewhat ad-hoc and sporadic.

These three levels of convergence may appear to define a roadmap for FMC deployment but, in reality, FMC is not evolving as smoothly as that. There are many examples of devices and services which are referred to as "FMC" but which don’t really look much like FMC visionaries may have imagined.

For example, Truphone offers a mobile VoIP solution whereby certain supported phones (which have WiFi capability) are able to use VoWLAN either at home or in public areas served by The Cloud WiFi hotspots. However, while the handset can operate over both fixed and mobile networks, it cannot handover a call from one to the other (i.e. if the WLAN signal or mobile signal is lost then the call is simply dropped). Solutions of this kind are a step towards FMC but are not what was originally envisioned.

I have not really expanded too much on the type of technology needed to make FMC work; I’ll save that discussion for a future post. I think it’s enough to say that IMS will play a big part in the future of converged communications systems. Another piece of the technology jigsaw I’ll discuss in the future is Generic Access Network or GAN (often referred to as Unlicensed Mobile Access or UMA) which provides a subtly different form of converged network device which do not integrate fully with the IMS vision.

Another important FMC topic I’ll discuss is the question of motivation. For instance, why should anyone be bothered about FMC? What are the benefits to users, to service providers and to equipment manufacturers? And who will be the winners and losers when FMC hits the big time?