One of the hotter convergence topics of late is fixed/mobile convergence - the ability to merge wired and wireless telecom resources so that users can have what amounts to their desktop phone in a handheld device in their pocket.
It sounds like a simple concept, but FMC requires lots of technical stitching on the part of the carrier or vendor to smooth out the seams between the wired and unwired worlds. There are multiple instantiations of FMC from which an enterprise can choose, which makes the right FMC decision more difficult.

But once the networks are stitched and the decisions about whether to opt for a carrier managed service or enterprise-centric FMC implementation are made, the benefits are manifold, industry experts say. They include the ability to be reached through one phone number wherever you are - at your desk, around campus, roaming about or at home - as well as reduced enterprise telecom costs by, for example, bypassing international mobile roaming charges when making cross-border calls.

A PBX in your pocket
The end game with FMC, observers say, is to equip workers with what amounts to the enterprise PBX in their pocket.

"It's mostly field workers needing access back into their office," says Craig Mathias, founder of mobile and wireless consultancy Farpoint Group.

Another driver is cost, Mathias says. FMC melds several disparate infrastructures - such as TDM and packet VOIP, IP data, Wi-Fi and various flavours of cellular - into one. A single infrastructure is a lot less expensive to operate than several.

Enterprises also can save on telecom costs. In addition to bypassing international roaming charges, businesses can tame their out-of-control cellular bills by selecting one or two service providers or vendors to include cellular as a component of an overall FMC or unified communications package, Mathias says.

But this is all promise; FMC is a nascent market and there are few implementations today.

Lots of users coming
Though FMC registers barely a blip on the radar screen, there will be 92 million FMC subscribers worldwide by 2011 and FMC revenue will amount to US$28 billion by that time, representing 3 percent of overall mobile subscriptions globally, according to market research firm Informa Telecoms & Media. The firm says the United States will lead the way with 33.2 million subscribers.

As a consequence, sales of dual-mode handsets will increase to 5 percent of global handset sales by 2011, Informa expects. Eighty-five percent of these sales will be to consumers adopting FMC services for convenience and cost benefits, although a "significant proportion of revenues" will be from enterprises adopting FMC as part of a unified communications strategy for more effective business interactions, the firm says.

Enterprises will have some deciding to do, however, not only in terms of companies or service providers to work with, but which implementation of FMC suits them - premises-based from vendor or network-based as part of a managed service offering from a carrier.

Supplier strategies
Carriers are just now finalising their FMC strategies. In the US, Verizon Business, for example, plans to unveil network- and premises-based offerings in the fourth quarter, says Jay Behrens, director of emerging services product management.

But while carriers firm up their market entries, enterprise-centric players are already on the field. Avaya offers a wireless LAN gateway that connects landline or cellular phones to voice services on a wireless LAN; mobile client software that resides on Nokia smart phones and enables access to office phone applications and features; and software on the receiving end of that client software to deliver office desk phone features to the mobile handset.

"The primary value proposition is one number, whatever the device," says Carolyn Nguyen, director of mobility at Avaya.

Still, whether an enterprise selects a premises- or network-based FMC offering will depend on the requirements of that customer, Nguyen acknowledges, such as whether they want to operate and manage the infrastructure themselves, or hand it off to a carrier so they can focus on their business.

She dismisses the notion that dual-mode handsets - those equipped with both Wi-Fi and cellular antennas - are necessary for FMC.

"The mass market now is cellular only," Nguyen says, adding that Avaya is working on a next-generation mobile client that supports dual-mode operation.

Another enterprise-centric FMC vendor is NetMotion Wireless, whose FMC strategy is to enable enterprises to establish mobile VPNs.

Most of NetMotion's 1,000 customers demand wireline/wireless VOIP convergence to reduce the costs of their various landline and cellular voice plans, says John Knopf, director of product management.

Implementation issues
But getting to this network nirvana is not easy. Enterprises have to consider the implications of FMC on their internal networks, on network security and the quality of mobile service, especially when roaming, Knopf says.

"The one ragged edge of FMC is the mobile side," he says. "The challenge is in expectation setting, not in implementation."

Mathias says implementations can be tricky, too. "It is a systems integration exercise," he says. "Vendors can help, but this is leading-edge stuff."

As for security, enterprises will have to decide how they want to partition access privileges, who in the organization has control over what, and how the overall scheme is managed, Knopf says.

"Even we are not the whole pie here," he says.

The key is judicious planning, Verizon Business' Behrens says, especially with regard to where FMC fits in an enterprise's larger picture unified communications strategy.

"There's a lot that can go wrong," he says. "There are any number of short-term solutions that are FMC or IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem) based. Users need to get out of it really what they need, and not just a product. The one-size-fits-all approach is a disservice to your customer."

That's why Verizon Business will unveil a suite of premises- and network-based FMC services later this year. The carrier is teaming with sister company Verizon Wireless, as well as systems integrators, application developers and other vendors to fill out its FMC strategy, Behrens says.

"When you see the list of vendors, it won't shock you at all," he says.

Verizon Business also will upgrade its Iobi Enterprise presence- and access-management product for the FMC rollout, Behrens says. Iobi Enterprise is a software client for PCs, Web browsers, voice portals, cell phones and PDAs that enables users to manage voice and text messaging with call forwarding and other integrated data and telephony applications.
"We need to take Iobi several levels deeper and broader" for FMC and unified communications, Behrens says.

Why we need it
Despite the complexity of FMC, it's needed. The chances of finding someone at his or her desk phone is one in three, according to DiVitas CEO Vivek Khuller.

DiVitas makes Linux server and client FMC software that determines the best way to access a user based on where they are.

In addition, laptops are outpacing sales of desktop PCs, Khuller notes, an indication that companies expect their employees to take the office with them when they're on the move.

So the real benefit of FMC, Khuller says, is not mobility - it's to reduce the cost of that mobility. Roaming charges can be as high as $2.00 to $3.00 per minute and FMC can reduce or eliminate that by treating the call as if it's being made from the company PBX.

"Customers have the pain of very high cell phone bills," Khuller says. "They're reachable via roaming but the cost of being reached is very high. [FMC]has the opportunity to make a major impact on the productivity of a lot of people."