Fixed-mobile convergence may have hidden costs

Fixed-mobile convergence (FMC) is much more than bridging wired and wireless to ease mobility.

At the Catalyst Conference 2007, a Burton Group analyst has warned that firms adopting fixed-mobile convergence (FMC) communications may encounter hidden extra costs.

Senior analyst Paul DeBeasi commented that many think FMC is simply being able to use a device on both a fixed or mobile network using a dual-mode handset.

On the surface, FMC brings PBX or Wi-Fi functionality to a company's deployed mobile devices. But, DeBeasi said, "[FMC] is actually more than that. The voice convergence is just the beginning."

FMC now not only incorporates dual-mode voice capabilities but must also include text messaging, video messaging and presence technologies.

According to DeBeasi, fixed-mobile convergence addresses the newly increased demand for mobility and "anywhere" access. In many cases, however, using a mobile phone more than the desk phone can introduce added costs. FMC, DeBeasi said, can reduce the number of cellular minutes used because it uses existing infrastructure when it bounces between cellular and enterprise networks.

There are many ways to approach FMC, DeBeasi said. It can be done in-house or provided by a mobile operator as a service. On the enterprise side, the IP-PBX provides call control.

DeBeasi said it's important for enterprises to determine whether they want to outsource FMC to an operator or own and manage their own FMC equipment. Enterprises must also ask what phones and client software they need to use for an FMC solution and whether the WLAN is ready to handle voice traffic.

Major components for fixed-mobile convergence include client software that provides the GUI and links the phone to servers; a VoIP gateway that establishes and transfers calls; application servers to provide FMC services and presence, voicemail and instant messaging; and protocols to establish and control calls for messaging and for application-specific control.

David Sproul, manager of emerging technologies and IT capital projects at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center, has been implementing a convergence plan for about five years. UCSF, ranked among the top 10 medical centers in the country by U.S. News & World Report, has three campuses and 10 locations within the city, and more than 7,000 employees.

Convergence, including FMC, should be viewed from two perspectives, according to Sproul.

First, it should be seen as a strategic business concept addressing the business needs for "anytime, anywhere" access to critical information and decision tools in order to facilitate better, faster and timelier decision making.

It should also be looked at as an enabling technology to address mobility as an extension of the IT environment. At the same time, companies should examine the mobile computing and wireless technologies comprising architecture, infrastructure and IT organisational considerations that will enable the integration of people, information, processes and location in a transparent and seamless manner.

Sproul said that devising a convergence strategy requires a great deal of planning and the consideration of many factors. He said executive sponsorship is essential to successful, cross-organisation collaboration of converged mobile initiatives. He advised companies to establish a governance structure between business units and IT for enterprise-wide architecture and technology.

Companies must also identify the business drivers for a convergence plan, Sproul added, along with defining a high-level IT blueprint to guide converged mobile initiatives. Lastly, he said, companies must assess the organisation's capabilities to lead, implement and support these initiatives.

From there, companies must define a path to convergence, Sproul advised. He said companies should:

  • Identify existing technologies that enable convergence in the existing enterprise environment.
  • Monitor emerging technologies that are appearing on the horizon and evaluate how they could integrate if adopted.
  • Manage convergence and maintain control from within.
  • Embrace open standards-based architecture and technology, such as SIP.
  • Initiate pilot converged and mobile initiatives that can provide evidence based on successful production operations and ROI, which will not always come easily or early.

At UCSF Medical Center, convergence was eyed as a solution to overcome several challenges. UCSF needed to comply with regulatory requirements while achieving greater standardisation and improvements balanced against the needs of the business. And increasing costs had placed stronger focus on cost management and operational productivity and efficiency using new and emerging technologies.

Being a medical center, UCSF was always considering patient safety and wanted to improve safety by using technologies to reduce medical error rates through the improvement of business processes, Sproul said. All the while, UCSF had to accommodate continuous deployment of new applications, platforms and organisational changes.

Sproul said he evaluated the network and corrected any infrastructure deficiencies from the core to the desktop before any converged platforms were deployed. He also deployed and implemented enterprise-wide security protocols and layered security schemes and built out a complete 802.11 wireless infrastructure throughout the medical center's facilities. From there, he implemented QoS across the network and established a cross-organisational group to identify and prioritise deployment and support of emerging technologies.

With those stepping stones in place, Sproul implemented a VoIP pilot to validate the deployment of a standards-based, multi-channel IP contact center application and both wired and wireless IP phones. Then a soft-client pilot was implemented, followed by a controlled production deployment.

UCSF is now piloting an FMC platform that enables seamless roaming from carrier wireless to internal Wi-Fi communication platforms and has deployed mobile wireless devices like computers on wheels, laptops, handsets and tablets. Essentially, an end user can walk into the building using a carrier cellular network, seamlessly switch to the UCSF Wi-Fi network once in range, and then transfer calls to the desktop VoIP phones using a button on the mobile handset without losing the call.

Sproul said UCSF is also testing solutions from DiVitas Networks to bridge cellular and internal Wi-Fi without dropped calls. DiVitas works with existing PBX-based voice systems or in a standalone configuration; interoperates with WAN infrastructure; supports dual-mode devices, Wi-Fi-only phones, cellular-only phones and softphones; provides seamless access to enterprise applications such as email, presence, IM and CRM over any network; and lets an enterprise mobilise all workers while retaining complete control.

The ultimate goal, Sproul said, is to get doctors, nurses and other staff down to carrying just one device in order to boost productivity, communications and availability.

"A converged infrastructure has to be viewed as a utility," he said. "If you don't, don't go forward with convergence."

Burton Group's DeBeasi recommended that companies planning for FMC should deploy WLAN systems first -- a controller-based architecture that provides management focal point and scalability. He said companies should deploy VoIP and VoWLAN, gaining experience first with VoIP and then VoWLAN. Companies should also trial Wi-Fi phones before going with dual-mode phones, focus on Java-based phones, and buy unlocked GSM phones.

Lastly, DeBeasi said, as part of a fixed-mobile convergence plan, enterprises should evaluate PBX/mobile integration solutions for greater control over mobile phones, develop an FMC policy, and evaluate a strategy for voice, mobility and unified communications.

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