There is a big prize shimmering in the distance, and the group that gets there first is going to dominate an industry and make lots of money.
Fixed mobile convergence (FMC) is a broad term relating to the marriage of various cellular and landline networks on a single subscriber device. Most often, it refers to the use of a single handset to access the cell and, through Wi-Fi, VoIP networks.
The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is designing the best method for connecting both networks to the handset and arbitrating between the two. According to Phil Solis, the mobile broadband analyst for ABI Research, there are three ways to do this: femtocells, unlicensed mobile access (UMA) and Session Initiation Protocol/voice control continuity (SIP/VCC).
As everybody knows, cell phone coverage is spotty. Part of this inconsistency is due to the difficulty that radio waves have in penetrating buildings. The nature of 3G spectrum, experts say, exacerbates the problem. Clearly, this puts a lot of the onus on the alternate technology which, like a good relief pitcher, will be called out of the bullpen when 3G signals falter. Says Solis:
All three provide coverage in homes that have poor cellular coverage. They will provide faster access, since high-speed 3G services have trouble penetrating into homes well enough. A weak signal means slower data speeds.
Femtocells act like a Wi-Fi access points (AP) but, in reality, they are extensions of the cellular network. The penetration challenge is solved simply by establishing an in-premise presence. Though the femtocell approach is a bit more expensive -- unlike UMA and SIP/VCC scenarios, carriers pay for cellular frequencies -- they have an important leg up on the other approaches. UMA is just getting out of the gate, and VCC approaches have been delayed. Says Solis:
One positive thing about the use of femtocells is that they work with all existing handsets. UMA handsets need client software. There are nine UMA handsets today. Femtocells are just like Wi-Fi access points as far as phones are concerned. They are on the cellular network, use the same air interface and the same frequencies.
Good information on femtocells is available at Analysys Research, on VCC at Martin's Mobile Technology Page and on UMA at Kineto Wireless. The race will be a thrilling one, at least by telecommunications and IT standards. The fault lines are forming, Solis says:
Today Orange and BT are supporting UMA in Europe. In the U.S., it's T-Mobile. It looks like more carriers will use VCC and SIP solutions. It has to do with the perception that VCC-based solutions will tie in better to their new IMS core networks. The fact of the matter is that UMA also ties in very well. UMA is more of a mobile operator-only solution, whereas VCC solutions play well to companies with a mix of wireline and wireless. AT&T and Verizon both are looking to support VCC solutions.
At the end of the day, Solis thinks that UMA, which has the advantage now, will bow to the greater flexibility of VCC and femtocells.
What it looks like the other two eventually will be bigger markets. In about three years VCC and femtocells will pass UMA.
Not everyone is a fan of femotocells, however. Dean Bubley, who writes extensively on wireless topics at Dean Bubley's Disruptive Wireless and elsewhere, recently reported on a femtocell conference in the U.K. His post was skeptical; it listed several stumbling blocks for the technology. He maintained that none of these is insurmountable. Collectively, however, they seem fairly intimidating. His concludes that they will take time to solve and that the currently common wisdom -- that 36 million femtocells-based devices will be deployed during the next five years -- is overly optimistic.
How it plays out remains to be seen, of course. Indeed, FMC will get even more complex as WiMax enters the fray in earnest and enlarges the landscape. What appears certain is that multi-billion dollar decisions will be made by service providers during the next couple of years.