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    Making the connection

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    With wireless and broadband hastening the demise of fixed voice, Priscilla Awde checks out the competing technologies that could take business voice wireless.

    As corporate workforces become more mobile, wireless voice communications are the norm and necessary in a world used to ‘anywhere, anytime’ connectivity. Given the proliferation of devices, technologies and architectures, selecting a suitable, cost effective, wireless voice service and integrating it into corporate communications policies is not a simple matter.

    IT managers and CIOs no longer want the expense of separate voice/data, fixed/mobile networks or high charges. They want to support mobile workers but with business class solutions governed by service level agreements. Needing to control mobile handset usage, authenticate users and bring wireless voice services under one, overarching corporate communication policy, they want similar assurance levels, PBX functionality, packages and tariff discounts as are available on traditional fixed systems.

    Nails in the coffin

    As mobility and broadband products put the final nails into the coffin of fixed voice — now a commodity service, bundled into broadband packages and sent over IP networks — fixed line operators are capitalising on existing relationships with enterprise customers and developing high quality wireless voice services. Most are building next generation, IP networks which support converged services.

    Mobile operators have concentrated mainly on consumers rather than the business sector but as markets become saturated and growth slows, they too are designing packages for the growing and lucrative enterprise sector.

    According to Ovum, Western European enterprise wireless voice connections will increase from 18.7 million this year to 19.8 million in 2009 but revenues will decline from $16.9 to $15.2 billion due to smarter buying decisions, price competition and bundled packages. Despite their interest in mobile voice, businesses are suspicious and consider wireless offerings weak and lacking the maturity of fixed solutions: a fact some in the industry admit.

    Whilst fully committed to the enterprise sector, Stephen Noakes, director of business propositions at Vodafone, recognises that mobile operators have not dealt well with the requirements for business voice — a situation the company has solved within its own organisation by replacing the fixed voice lines at its headquarters with wireless. Fixed/mobile substitution replicates many existing PBX functions and tariffs and offers free internal mobile calls.

    “There are three potential solutions for business customers: fixed/mobile substitution; fixed/mobile integration or FMC or voice over WLAN – all will be available over the next two-three years,” says Noakes. “VOIP or voice over WLAN can potentially deliver the key business requirements of security, stability and capacity but it is not clear it’s the right answer for all customers. FMC is a potential solution but customers are concerned about VOIP which is commercialised first as a consumer service.

    “Businesses are looking to reduce supply base complexity and the proliferation of communications providers. There is a clear desire to reduce the total cost of ownership and they want service assurance and high quality of service — none talk to a particular technology.”

    While fixed/wireless substitution provides the required flexibility, it also brings its problems. There may be poor in-building GSM cover, it can be expensive — especially for roaming or international calls — and handsets must be brought within a company’s secure usage policy. Operators may add pico cells or cheaper repeater cells to boost in-building connectivity where traffic volumes are high or to add capacity in campus environments.

    Using GSM organisations can transfer calls between fixed and mobile devices and monitor mobile calls as users dial into the VPN (Virtual Private Network), from outside offices. Inside, the system diverts calls between desktop and mobile devices seamlessly so mobiles act like PBX extensions working in similar ways to desktop phones. It is possible to hand off GSM calls to the fixed infrastructure via a WiFi network.

    Yet Carolyn Nguyen, Avaya’s director of global mobility strategy warns: “GSM is a separate infrastructure to the enterprise communications network and managers cannot control costs. Mobile costs are not charged in IT but via expense accounts which results in a lack of transparency. No mobile calls can be recorded, call data records, enterprise directories and voice mail are separate. The question is how to bring mobile communications into the infrastructure and integrate it into business operations and the enterprise PBX.”

    Companies may choose to by-pass the fixed PBX and transmit voice, video and data over one IP network. WLANs (Wireless Local Area Networks), can be reconfigured to handle voice or companies can use VOIP (Voice over IP), which is becoming more reliable and sophisticated. Margaret Hopkins, associate at Analysys believes putting voice on the WLAN is expensive and not a priority. “There is a big cost of migrating voice to IP. Is it more efficient to put in a GSM pico cell or WLAN hub with voice support? This is a debate between equipment vendors and mobile operators. Yet, if companies are adding WLANs for data they might add voice.”

    Dual mode WLAN phones are available in Japan and most manufacturers have plans to develop them but they are costly and battery life is shorter — so not conducive to corporate usage.

    Emerging fixed/mobile convergence (FMC), carries integration to the device level. Using only one phone and one number, calls are seamlessly switched between fixed and GSM networks. BT Fusion, one of the first FMC services, is targeted first at consumers and SOHOs but with a corporate offering due for launch in the second half of 2006. It transmits calls over the fixed network in buildings handing off to Vodafone’s network outside. Currently Bluetooth connects handsets to the hub but dual mode WiFi handsets are expected next year once power consumption and therefore battery life improves. Connected to the broadband DSL line, the hub serves as a WiFi router supporting wireless connections for PCs, laptops and home entertainment consoles.

    Underlying protocol

    The underlying signalling protocol is the UMA (Unlicensed Mobile Access) standard used by mobile operators to hand off calls between GSM and fixed networks. Since it is a simple software load onto handsets, costs are kept low but functionality is limited to that available over GSM.

    Looking to the corporate sector, BT has future proofed its hub by including SIP (Session Initiation Protocol), the standard widely used within the enterprise IT world to allow access to different applications from fixed or wireless devices. “With a future proof box, we only need to get it into the house once making this a very economical model,” explains Ryan Jarvis, chief of convergence products at BT. “Business tariffs will be available in the autumn and there is a large amount of interest from that community.”

    Emerging as the winner

    There is a debate about whether UMA or SIP will emerge as the winner. Mobile operators see UMA as a way of getting into enterprises to capture more mobile voice and eventually data revenues. Both standards run in parallel but as wireless and wireline operators invest in intelligent IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystems), next generation networks (NGNs), and use MPLS to prioritise and route voice traffic, most agree that eventually all applications including voice will be handled in the SIP world

    The rationale behind building NGNs is to gain the operational efficiency and savings of collapsing multiple legacy networks into one. VOIP is a reality in core IP networks so it makes sense to extend it to the edge. “NGNs will have the central intelligence to enable seamless convergence so one identification will be spread across cellular and fixed networks,” says Jarvis of BT. “SIP is very powerful for businesses since it allows them to make free calls by switching traffic between GSM and the LAN.”

    Daniel Blais, director of converged multimedia services at Nortel agrees, suggesting there are two major advantages to SIP: “It integrates different applications in one tool, has one interface and users have a single SIP identification. Applications hosted in the enterprise or carrier network are accessed via multiple devices. Fixed operators are moving to SIP because they need to add mobility and it will be the new platform for mobile operators.”

    Enterprises deploying SIP throughout their organisations are linking data and voice networks via IP PBXs. “Big companies have a SIP based PBX linked to the PSTN and operators can provide a virtual mobile network onto the IP switch so users can communicate anywhere,” explains Roland Thies, VP, partnership at Alcatel. “VOIP is a SIP based technology whilst UMA is used to transparently handoff calls from GSM to in-building WiFi access points.”

    Believing SIP will win in the long term because it has more reasons for existing, Jonathan Hindle, mobile service provider marketing manager at Cisco says: “It extends lots of data and voice services into an easier to deploy environment. More application writers will be writing for SIP. Whole new IP MPLS networks are being built anyway — it is easier to add SIP as part of the network migration to IP.”

    Business class FMC solutions are delayed because operators want to trial them first in the consumer sector to ensure they work effectively and handsets are not yet able to support WiFi or WLAN. In Europe, mobile operators control handset development and it is not in their interests to encourage manufacturers to develop FMC terminals. However, with no such ties, Asian manufacturers are aggressively developing devices forcing Europeans to follow suit.

    Eric Chambriard, VP for product marketing at Neuf Telecom believes that for the first time in telecoms history, French consumers have better services at home than at work. “There are complex and expensive office systems and cheap simple systems at home — a situation which is not good and will not last long because of convergence. We have combined voice, internet access, VPNs and mobility into Neuf Office and have an agreement with SFR (France’s second largest mobile operator), to use their network.”

    Neuf uses local loop unbundling to connect its box to the copper pair so offering the service guarantees associated with the fixed infrastructure. Chambriard suggests customers are not buying FMC but a service: “In the past, we had different networks for different terminals — mobile, data and fixed networks — now all are rolled into one IP network.”

    The next several years will see wireless enterprise voice systems maturing and prices dropping as operators respond to demand for business class integrated wireless voice and data solutions and IT managers get better at negotiating packages. However, choosing the right system largely depends on business needs. Katja Rudd, research director at Gartner suggests there will be an evolutionary path and mix/match approach. “The importance is to match communications to meet different functions and needs. The right question is to ask what features are required to do the job and to source economically.”