Fixed-mobile convergence, saving time and money
It is only relatively recently that enterprises have begun using fixed mobile convergence (FMC) solutions in live deployments, following many years of hype. Unlike certain other technology propositions, it is not always easy to quantify the benefits FMC can bring, making it a hard-sell among cost-conscious businesses.
Generally, FMC is seen as a tool to address two business needs: to cut voice costs, and to provide seamless communications for mobile workers. Research firm Strategy Analytics argues that demand for FMC will be driven by increased interest in FMC as a business process enabler rather than purely as a cost-saving proposition.
Many enterprises embracing FMC have done so as part of a wider assessment of their IT strategy, with discussions about other products -- for example data mobility solutions -- leading on to a discussion about the benefits that FMC can deliver. Making the picture more complex, there is no "one-size fits all" which is applicable to all companies, meaning significant amount of groundwork needs to be done when exploring the potential of products and services.
FMC can reduce roaming call costs and displace at-desk mobile calls
FMC's cost-saving credentials have primarily been based on the ability to off-load voice traffic from the mobile network to an enterprise's Wi-Fi infrastructure, thereby reducing mobile bills. While this is fine in principle, in order to do this an enterprise would need deploy a Wi-Fi network that is capable of supporting voice, which, as Cisco Systems has highlighted, is a complex process -- and involves capital expenditure before cost savings can be made.
This also has an obvious limitation; cost savings can only be made when on the company's premises, and not when visiting customer sites, staying in hotels, or travelling internationally, when voice costs are at their highest. As with the widespread use of virtual private networks, which has enabled secure corporate data access via public wireless networks, secure voice-over-Wi-Fi technologies will emerge to do the same for business voice, giving FMC's cost-cutting credentials a significant boost.
More immediately, FMC can deliver savings on international calls made from mobile phones. By integrating devices with a corporate PBX, domestic access calls can then be routed via the corporate IP telephony network, delivering the added benefit of enabling accurate cost monitoring.
Improved mobility and productivity by being contactable anywhere, anytime
A more compelling role for FMC is in extending corporate PBX features to mobile phones, ensuring employees are easily contactable at all times, both by internal staff and customers. With an increasing number of "nomadic" staff working regularly either from home or customer premises, there is a danger that intra-company collaboration is reduced, and FMC can help address this issue -- providing real business benefits, if a little more difficult to quantify at the bottom line.
With an integrated mobile/PBX solution, both mobile and desk phones ring when a call is received, enabling staff to answer wherever they may be. Users also have a single voicemail box, to ease message management, and a single, fixed-line corporate contact number -- especially useful in businesses with a transient workforce. This solution also has the benefit of preserving (and extending) existing investments in corporate PBXs.
The integration of presence technology, familiar from the instant messaging world, with the corporate address book aids this further. Employees can show colleagues their status (available, in a meeting, on a call), and set their preferred method of communication, so that all parties know the status of their associates, and ensuring that vital interactions are prioritised over less important tasks. The use of "casual" contact methods such as IM can also aid informal employee contact, which may be lost through remote working.
Small businesses ideal for fixed-mobile convergence
For SMEs, voice-over-Wi-Fi is a more straightforward proposition, due to the fact that a single access point can be deployed which will support a limited number of voice calls within a defined range -- not an option which would appeal to corporates. The driving technology here is Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA), which enables dual-mode Wi-Fi/mobile handsets to hand-off between the mobile network and the hotspot.
While FMC solutions integrating mobile with the corporate PBX are very-much driven by fixed-line infrastructure deployments, UMA is more the preserve of mobile operators. The access point connects to the mobile network via a broadband link, and the single number provided is a mobile one. But small businesses can still stand to benefit from reduced costs for in-building calls and single-number access, even if the solution is less sophisticated than a fully-fledged enterprise FMC deployment.
What next for fixed-mobile convergence?
In the future, it is likely that FMC will gain traction for other collaborative applications, enabling office-based staff to communicate with mobile colleagues using video telephony and share documents over mobile broadband connections (mobile collaboration is itself something of an industry hot-topic). While this will enable improved corporate collaboration across a distributed user base, the devices used by staff will still present limitations, with laptops and netbooks more capable than smartphones, with their associated screen size, processing power, and input limitations.
In addition, there is significant interest in picocells, which are in-building GSM/3G base stations which connect to the operator network over a fixed broadband connection, similar to the way in which existing UMA/Wi-Fi hotspots function. Historically, the focus has been on how picocells can improve in-building coverage and cut-costs rather than extending PBX functionality to mobiles, meaning that as with UMA, solutions may be of most interest to SMEs. Technology company ip.access has published a whitepaper detailing the potential of this (and related) products.