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VOIP, Wireless & FMC: What Happens When Technology Matures?

The answer to this article’s title question will depend on the technology. For example, one can argue that VoIP has matured although “in many cases overall year-over-year growth [in enterprises] was modest” — a quote from “The State of North American Business Customer Adoption of IPT and VOIP” posted by Lisa Pierce on April 1. Thus, it’s mature but not widely implemented in enterprises. However, in the consumer sector, VoIP is a technology that is increasingly taken for granted--witness the success of Skype.

Flashback: The first feature article I wrote explained the difference between DECT and GSM. At the time I had to explain that DECT was a local area technology while GSM was wide area--and of course in time the “area” became the world. The article also covered the “architecture” of a GSM network. We don’t write or think about the technology that underpins the “anywhere, anytime” paradigm anymore, but the ability to find the party you are calling in seconds, when he/she can be on another network on the other side of the world is awesome. In the case of cellular, it's based on an intelligent network, but who cares? Cellular telephony works, so we simply take it for granted. That’s what happens when technologies mature; however, good technology need not stand still.

GSM has advanced in terms of functionality: multimedia, cameras and video recording have been added — data rates are good enough for PC apps and they’re getting better. VoIP has also moved on, and is now looking at its next generation, whether that’s called Unified Communications, Communications Enabled Business Processes, VoIP 2.0, or some other term. Whatever it’s called, the name suggests making voice an integral and seamless part of mainstream business applications.

Within this broader context, VoIP over Wi-Fi is an interesting development, since it could provide a much cheaper alternative to cellular telephony. Could has been italicized because the FMC jury hasn’t delivered its verdict. For example, when a consumer has a mobile phone, why do they need a FMC “solution” in the home? With virtually unlimited “night and weekend” rates, they already have cheap calling.

Of course, mobile network operators aren’t offering these kinds of deals because they’ve morphed into a philanthropic institution. They’re doing it because VoIP represents a formidable challenge to their business model, and they have seen the way packet-switched technology has decimated the revenue stream of fixed line operators. The competitive response is to drop tariffs and offer special deals, so right now VoIP and cellular telephony would appear to be going head to head, but mobile network operators are migrating their network cores to IP, which means that a marriage is pending. More on this in a moment.

The short-term network driver is the cellular carriers’ need to lower operating costs, which can be achieved by migrating the circuit-switched core network to IP. That is the only way that the carrier industry can realize the enormous potential of emerging markets such as China and India. The longer-term goal is “anywhere, anytime” access to applications and services over any broadband access network, i.e. wireline, wireless (Wi-Fi and WiMAX) and cellular (2G through to LTE [Long Term Evolution]). You can see this development as a superset of FMC—or, put another way, today’s FMC solutions represent a small but significant step towards a fully unified environment that we’ll access via multimodal, mobile devices. Between now and 2010, I expect the term FMC to disappear.

The transition to all-IP network cores is normally associated with the introduction of IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem). This is a somewhat contentious subject and even now the number of commercial deployments is low and IMS terminals are not, as yet, fully aligned. IMS was designed to simplify the network architecture and facilitate access to multimedia and voice applications across wireless and wireline terminals. It’s not positioned as an FMC solution, but the functionality is the same. "Commercial" was italicized above because while vendors have sold lots of systems, probably more than 200, service rollouts are thin on the ground because a number of issues have to be resolved. However, given the size of the investments and the momentum it’s only a matter of time.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A TECHNOLOGY IS MADE TO WORK?

The bold (maybe foolish) prediction that the term FMC will disappear is based on the fact that the business case for FMC in enterprises is predicated on the high cost of cell-to-cell calls made inside the same building. One solution, the first to be marketed, entailed engineering the Wireless LAN for voice and investing in dual-mode (Wi-Fi and cellular) phones. However, WLANs are really a set of wireless extensions to the LAN, so there were handover latency issues. Moreover, WLANs were designed for data, so they don’t do voice particularly well unless traffic streaming is employed, and this is not supported in most deployments. This means that service quality is uncertain, particularly when cells become congested. In addition, the whole exercise is tricky and expensive. One can argue that before VoIP, the situation was the same for the Internet, i.e. the network was designed for data, not voice —but in this case the benefits went much further than free/cheap telephony.

There is a valid case to be made for dual-mode FMC in the small-medium enterprise (SME) space, since office areas are much smaller and can therefore be covered with a few access points. And femtocells, which are small cellular base stations, are attractive, particularly in areas where access to a cellular network is limited or not available. They connect to the service provider’s network via DSL or cable. A key benefit of this solution is the ability to work with legacy 2G devices.