Software company Kineto has gained another big backer for its UMA (unlicensed mobile access) technology that converges mobiles and fixed lines phones. But it still lacks the crucial support it needs - 3G handsets.

Kineto's UMA technology, endorsed as a standard from the 3GPP, has been adopted by BT (in its Fusion product) and is available in about six services worldwide.

BenQ has announced plans to deliver UMA handsets, which should reduce a criticism of UMA - the has been the lack of handset choice. Apart from BT's Fusion, initially based on Bluetooth, it requires a dual-mode Wi-Fi / cellular device, with software to run the UMA service, and so far few handsets are available.

"With BenQ we now have five out of the top six handset makers," said Steve Shaw, director of marketing at Kineto. Nokia has delivered the 6136, LG has the CL400, Motorola's A910 appears in most of the trials, and Samsung has the T-709/P200.

UMA is widely seen as a stopgap before fully SIP-based convergence using the IMS protocol, but is popular with mobile operators - as it routes traffic their across the Internet onto their own networks under their control. It also figures in the voice roadmaps of the likes of Aruba, which plans to help integrators use it to offer converged voice on office WLANs.

What's missing?

However, at this stage, the handsets don't quite meet what the operators really want. Much of the marketing of FMC services will be on the basis of saving money on phone calls. However, at this stage handsets are still expensive.

They also miss out what must be a major item on the wishlist. 3G offers high bandwidth data, but one of its biggest problems is its poor indoor coverage. UMA could fix that at a strike, using Wi-Fi indoors, which also offers high data rates.

At this stage, none of the UMA handsets offers 3G. "Operators will have to offer their best customers a choice: UMA or 3G - but not both," says Dean Bubley of Disruptive Analysis. In other words, you get to choose between high data rates and indoor coverage.

"Tri-mode phones [Wi-Fi 2G and 3G] are more complex," explains Shaw. "When it leaves Wi-Fi coverage, does it handover to 2G or 3G?" According to Shaw, the operators' demand for lower-cost handsets is even more pressing, given the services are selling on their ability to cut phone bills.
"The handsets operators are asking for entry level to mid-tier models," says Shaw. "Not HTC high end devices. You need free or low-cost handsets for a play based on low-cost voice."

3G UMA phones will appear, says Shaw, but not till the third quarter of this year.

Competition from IMS

Meanwhile fixed operators may be more inclined to take IMS solutions over UMA. And we may see some changeovers.

For instance, BT will have IMS on its 21CN core network. Routing calls over that would be free, while UMA forces it to route UMA calls over a mobile operator's network.

Despite this, BT did an MVNO deal with Vodafone, and used UMA to support its Fusion dual-mode service launched in 2005. By connecting through a mobile network, BT has to pay an interconnection charge (around 8p) for UMA calls that go out to another mobile, which must dent the savings it proposes to pass on to the customer.

BT's use of UMA is an anomaly, caused by the operator's desire to get something out quickly. As the only major incumbent phone operator without a mobile arm, it felt it needed to get in first on dual-mode phones. When it launched Fusion, there were no dual-mode Wi-Fi phones available, and 21CN was still in the future.

Even now there are few phones that support the IMS VCC (voice call continuity) protocol. "At this stage, there aren't a lot of VCC phones," points out Shaw. "The big guys won't jump till the standard is completed - and that will be another year." So while, BT may want to move away from UMA, it's not yet got anything very solid to move to - and this goes for other operators looking for a convergence product.

So, with IMS dual-mode looking like a slow starter, UMA has reasons not to be too downcast. As ever, though, Shaw is actually pretty cheerful. Even if IMS-based dual mode booms, he believes it won't bother UMA. If anything, it would UMA activity among UMA's real supporters, the mobile operators, he says: "The more fixed operators do SIP/IMS services, the more mobile operators will be compelled to do UMA."

And UMA still has another outlet: it could become an authentication technology for femtocells - small cellular base stations installed in users' homes to boost indoor coverage, with a link to the mobile network over the Internet. But that's just a side-issue says Shaw: "UMA will be part of the femto market, but we won't drop the dual-mode handsets."