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Fixed mobile convergence: The past, present and future

FMC is about the battle between mobile and fixed operators and for the building, however VoIP operators are making a strong play for the market. Learn why an aggressive FMS strategy is a win-win approach for both end-users and operators.

Fixed Mobile Convergence (FMC) is the integration of wireline and wireless technologies and services to create a single network foundation. Over the last several months the concept of FMC, and the technologies that enable it, has gained significant industry coverage, leading to confusion in the marketplace. One of the main reasons for this confusion is the fact that convergence can occur at different points in the network.

Device convergence is the ability to deliver fixed and mobile services on a single handset. Many of today's approaches are based on device-level convergence, combining mobile service and a fixed-line VoIP service onto a single handset. Service convergence has several different definitions. From the earliest single-bill solutions to common buckets of minutes in calling plans, service convergence is a higher-level approach to pulling disparate services together under a common umbrella. The subscriber benefits from the lower cost for a service bundle.

Business drivers
To be successful, FMC must meet business goals. Simply converging services because the technology is available will not result in a positive experience for users or operators. Fundamentally FMC has been, and continues to be, about the battle for the building, or who owns the voice minutes when end users are at home or elsewhere. End users still use fixed-line phones in homes and offices for a majority of their calls. This is especially true in Europe, where the high price disparity between fixed and mobile lines causes consumers to think twice about the cost of placing calls.

The battle for the building has been fairly lopsided for the past several years. Mobile operators have made steady gains, taking minutes of use from the fixed operators who, for the most part, were powerless to stop it. However, the new breed of VoIP operators are a viable competitor battling for those fixed minutes. The rise of these new VoIP service providers has driven operators to action; they threaten to drastically drive down the value of fixed minutes towards zero dollars. With new competitors, fixed operators are striking back with their own VoIP service plans.

Yet for the integrated operator, one with both fixed and mobile properties, there is an alternative. Rather than driving the value of fixed minutes with VoIP service plans, integrated operators are looking to FMC technologies to accelerate the migration from fixed to mobile networks, a strategy also known as Fixed-Mobile Substitution (FMS).

To be successful, FMC must meet business goals. Simply converging services because the technology is available will not result in a positive experience for users or operators.
An aggressive FMS strategy is a win-win approach for both end users and operators. Take a fictional end user paying eight cents a minute for fixed-line voice. The fixed operator may develop a VoIP package in an effort to convince the user to stay with it for a rate of three cents a minute. Alternatively, the mobile division may have that same end user as a customer.

The integrated operator can develop an aggressive FMS package and offer the user a plan for when the mobile phone is attached to a broadband network in the office that is about one-third the cost of an ordinary mobile plan.

For the end user, this is a very attractive package. The incredible convenience of a single device with a common address book and call log is very appealing, and the low cost adds to the appeal.

But for the integrated operator, the fixed minutes that were quickly heading from five cents to two cents a minute and potentially lower are suddenly commanding a premium, simply because they are made on a mobile phone.

Technology requirements
One of the big questions about FMC is why now? As with all evolutionary steps in the network, it is a combination of technology, competition, and business climate that makes today's market ripe for the next round of FMC.

The resurgence of FMC stems in part from the incredible power of IP. With broadband penetration rates above 30 percent in many developed countries around the world, high-speed broadband is giving rise to new VoIP telephony providers that have low-cost, reliable, vendor-independent access directly to the consumer.

For operators, broadband is a double-edged sword. Many fixed operators view DSL or cable access as a revenue stream fueling growth in a stagnant market. Yet these operators are increasingly faced with the reality that the very broadband networks they sell are being used to cannibalize their own voice revenue streams.

Mobile operators have been on a constant quest for a high-performance, low-cost, in-building solution to address coverage issues and establish landline-compatible calling zones. Pico-cell GSM technologies, which make no changes to the users' mobile phone experience yet can be deployed in homes and offices, have been a costly alternative. These solutions often employ expensive customer premise equipment (CPE) and do not offer any savings to the operator for backhauling traffic to the core network.

New solutions deployed in Germany by O2 and Vodafone use the increased spectrum of UMTS to provide an in-home FMC solution. Their packages include a CPE device that offers fixed-line voice, improved mobile services, and fixed-line broadband delivered over a Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS) backhaul. With new location technology, service providers can triangulate on the location of the CPE device to provide a "home zone" within which mobile calls are equivalent to fixed-line calls. While these packages are innovative, the CPE costs hundreds of dollars. These packages are thus more an example of the lengths operators will go to develop low-cost, high–performance, in-building services rather than a truly viable solution.

As with all evolutionary steps in the network, it is a combination of technology, competition, and business climate that makes today's market ripe for the next round of FMC.
Unlicensed mobile access
One innovative approach to the battle for the building is to use the broadband IP access network to deliver the same user applications over IP as over the traditional GSM network. If competitive VoIP providers can use the low-cost IP network, traditional operators need to use the same network to achieve the same cost advantages.

Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) is currently the only 3GPP standard available that offers seamless mobile/WiFi convergence. Developed by eight equipment providers and six service providers, UMA takes a very pragmatic approach to extending the existing voice, data, and IMS applications available on the GSM network over the new Wi-Fi/IP network and into consumers' homes and offices.

There are two new network elements in a UMA network. First is a UMA-enabled mobile device, generally a mobile phone with a Wi-Fi radio and UMA client software. The UMA client software runs the UMA protocol and manages the functions related to determining when and how the handset will hand over to the Wi-Fi network from the GSM radio-access network. To date, Samsung, LG Electronics, Motorola, and Nokia have all announced plans for UMA-enabled handsets, with several models available today.

The second element of a UMA-enabled network is a UMA network controller (UNC), which is installed in the mobile operator's core network. The UNC interfaces the public IP access network and the existing mobile core network. The UNC connects to the mobile network like a base station controller (BSC).

There are several advantages to this approach. UMA is inherently an access technology, and the BSC function is in the access network. Because of this, the operator's service layer, the Mobile Switching Center (MSC), and associated network elements, do not need to be modified or adapted to support UMA. The operator's business support, IT systems, MSC service mapping for trunks, lawful intercept, and emergency services do not require change, significantly minimizing disruption to the network. This approach also offers a cost-contained method to adding Wi-Fi and IP as an access technology.

Another advantage of the BSC-style approach of UMA is that GSM native-network handover procedures are used to seamlessly hand voice and data sessions between the GSM and Wi-Fi access networks. GSM networks were designed to move sessions seamlessly across BSCs, and the framers of the UMA specification leveraged the existing work to ensure a seamless experience for subscribers -- for both voice and data sessions -- across access networks.

As discussed, a successful FMC strategy depends on having core business drivers. Integrated and mobile operators today are looking at FMC for two specific goals. The first is to accelerate FMS by moving fixed-line voice minutes from the operator's fixed division to the operator's mobile division. Second, operators today are looking to FMC as a way to block the competitive threat of new VoIP service providers.

An effective FMS approach must meet some specific requirements, namely that the consumer be able to move seamlessly between the GSM radio access network (RAN) and the in-home access network; that the consumer does not need to change usage patterns to make the service work; that any CPE cost for the in-home solution must not dramatically impact the business case for the service; and that in-home FMS service offerings be less expensive than the existing mobile service offerings.

If the public Internet has shown us anything, it is that consumers with endless choices for services and applications insist on different flavors of everything -- there is no one "killer app." 
UMA meets those requirements today by offering seamless mobility and session continuity. Subscribers can roam between the mobile and Wi-Fi networks without losing data or connectivity, and UMA delivers the same existing voice, data, and IMS services available over the RAN. Subscribers in a UMA network thus have the same user interface and use mobile services exactly the same as they would on the GSM RAN.

While UMA is not directly linked to Wi-Fi, all operators today are looking to deploy Wi-Fi-based UMA solutions in 2006. The reasons are clear - Wi-Fi access points are inexpensive and prices continue to fall. With increased penetration of Wi-Fi in subscribers' homes and offices, many UMA service plans may be deployed with a "bring your own CPE" approach, giving the operator further savings.

By using the public IP network for backhaul, operators are able to significantly reduce the operating expenses associated with service delivery. Many experts claim the cost of delivering services over the public IP network is 90 percent less than delivering them via the existing GSM RAN. It is the economics of IP that make UMA an ideal technology for aggressive FMS service plans.

Many fixed and mobile operators are evaluating IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) solutions; however, the drivers for adoption for each type of operator are very different. IMS was originally conceived by the 3GPP more than five years ago as a service and content delivery platform. Mobile operators were interested in developing an IP-based applications platform (or subsystem) to facilitate the rapid creation and delivery of new services.

IMS has expanded in scope quickly, and voice and VoIP services became a natural extension of the applications an IMS service could deliver. Clearly, IMS means different things to different stakeholders. Because of this, IMS plays differing roles in the definition of FMC solutions.

If the public Internet has shown us anything, it is that consumers with endless choices for services and applications insist on different flavors of everything - there is no one "killer app." Mobile operators are looking to IMS as a platform for housing hundreds of micro-applications that can be developed and introduced at a dramatically faster rate than via existing monolithic application structures.

Meanwhile, fixed-line operators have evaluated the definition of IMS and concluded a platform for developing revenue-generating applications for broadband subscribers is a tremendous advantage. A single killer app -- VoIP -- had already emerged. For competitive reasons, nearly all fixed operators are pursing a fixed-line VoIP service offer.

Initially, it appears that integrated operators will use UMA and IMS in conjunction to deliver a more compelling FMC service offering. The first step in offering a compelling FMS service is for operators to use UMA as the technology to bring the mobile device onto the in-home/office Wi-Fi network. However, operators today are looking to use IMS to actually bridge the subscriber's fixed home-phone line with the mobile service.

With this scenario, as the subscriber enters the home and the mobile handset roams onto the Wi-Fi network, an IMS application on the phone notifies a dual-ring service running on the IMS platform. The dual-ring application becomes aware that the subscriber's mobile device in the home. The subscriber has already configured his/her preferences, specifying an incoming call to the mobile device is to dual-ring on the fixed-line in the home. Thus an incoming call to the mobile line causes both the fixed phones in the house and the mobile handset to ring and either device can be used to answer the call. For consumers, this dual-ring capability offers convergence of fixed and mobile services with an added level of convenience and integration.

For integrated operators, this capability provides several valuable services. First, it delivers real value between the fixed and mobile networks and the subscriber is less likely to churn either mobile, voice, or DSL service. Second, the integration of the fixed and mobile lines reduces the likelihood of the consumer dropping the fixed line completely. While all the service minutes may be delivered over the mobile network, the operator can continue to charge the existing rate for a fixed line in the home while providing the value and convenience of the dual-ring service.

The future of convergence
As operators look to the future of convergence, IMS plays an increasingly important role. Many integrated operators see IMS as the platform on which to base an all-IP network. As IMS becomes the common thread for integrating fixed and mobile core operators, it will result in dramatically lower expenses and more efficient operators.

While this vision will undoubtedly take years to achieve, one thing is clear -- all parties view UMA as the first logical step to FMC today.

@17659 Steve Shaw is the director of marketing for Kineto Wireless, the innovator and leading provider of converged cellular/WiFi solutions. Steve is responsible for Kineto's go to market strategy for its UMA-compliant IP network controller for fixed and mobile network operators. Steve has more than 15 years experience in product, marketing, and business development roles with telecommunications companies. Steve holds a bachelor of science in computer science from the University of Southern California.

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