Shared Future

Fixed-mobile convergence is not a new concept, though the manner in which technology providers and network operators are beginning to interpret it is. With the evolution of networks and the growing importance of the provision of IP-based intelligence at the core of the network, operators in the MEA are taking tangible steps towards the implementation of truly converged transportation networks and applications.

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By  Tawanda Chihota Published  July 2, 2006

|~|Mark-Rotter200.jpg|~|IDC's Mark Rotter believes it would make sense for operators in low broadband markets to target enterprises with FMC solutions first.|~|Fixed line operators across the Middle East region, aided in many cases by retaining a stake in their mobile operations, have been driving the concept of converging the transportation layers of their separate networks into a single, IP-based network. Etisalat in the UAE, for example, has been a strong proponent for the offer of converged services, though the practical implementation of it is still some ways to go, with customers receiving up to five different bills from the operator, having subscribed to different services. According to research house IDC, the phenomenon that is fixed-mobile convergence (FMC) can be defined as the device independent access to a consistent quality of service when accessing the same communication, information, or entertainment. At its heart lies seamlessness; user flexibility in access methods; converged CPE (customer premises equipment)/terminal devices,:personalisation; and the best of cellular, fixed line and wireless worlds. “The ultimate target for FMC is to have one handset to access to all technologies,” comments Hicham Aroudaki, director of technical consulting, Siemens Communications, Middle East. “Today you have your fixed telephone, you have your mobile telephone, and you have access to different technologies. You have a different phone book, you have different profiles, you have different calendars, and the aim of FMC is to be able to access all this information from a single device,” he adds. The benefits to fixed-line operators to move towards a converged environment are clear cut, in the opinion of Mark Rotter, IDC's programme manager for the MEA telecoms team. “Fixed operators know all about fixed-mobile substitution, and have been feeling the pinch for quite a while. FMC helps them to mitigate that effect,” Rotter explains. According to Aroudaki, there are two basic points that need to be borne in mind when embarking on a FMC strategy. The first is for the operator to identify whether the trends from the market justify the move to converged services “Do you have the technology, which enables this, and is there the interest from the consumer side, are the questions operators need to ask,” says Aroudaki. “Generally, there is definitely interest from the consumer side because most people do not like to carry more than one device, people don't like to have one bill for fixed, one bill for mobile; people don't like to have to pay two separate bills, twice in a month.” ||**|||~|Hicham-Aroudaki200.jpg|~|Hicham Aroudaki, Siemens Communications' director technical consulting, believes operators in the region are following the right approach in the introduction of FMC.|~|Thus Aroudaki believes the end user requirement is there, but that it needs to be defined, and nurtured. The second point Aroudaki identifies is the question of technology itself. “We are going in the direction of IP, whatever it is — whether it is a voice call, whether it is the radio, it is the end user who decides. The ultimate target for all the communications is the development of voice over IP.” Given the growing significance of IP at the core of communications networks in the future, Aroudaki identifies IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem) as one of the core components truly fuelling the drive towards a fully converged environment. IMS is an open, standardised NGN multimedia architecture for mobile and fixed services, with its VoIP capability based on a 3GPP variant of SIP (Session Initiated Protocol), and runs over standard IP. “IMS really is the backup, the bearer for this evolution [to FMC] because we have a fundamental additional point there, which is SIP. SIP addresses not only the bearer; it addresses the mechanism to make it possible to have a common control functionality of the complete layer of our communication. And this is the essence of FMC,” explains Aroudaki. IDC's Rotter is in agreement that IMS and NGN are playing a role in the development of FMC, as is WiFi, given its appeal in terms of offering a low cost access point with relatively cheap chipsets. WiMAX is expected to follow suit. Rotter estimates that it will be at least another five years before the mass-market uptake of a fully converged device, and probably more than that for the provision of standardised FMC network equipment. Aroudaki's forecasts are fairly similar, suggesting that it could take up to four years before the full potential of FMC is achieved. When FMC does finally arrive, IDC believes consumer benefits could include: One handset, one number · One bill (for calls over fixed and mobile networks) · One phonebook and one voicemail · Better quality of mobile calls indoors · Lower cost of mobile calls at home · Ubiquitous availability of content at all locations for lower costs and higher speeds. “What is driving FMC is the fact that the industry is no longer just about mobility, it is about convenience,” says Rotter. IDC identifies the benefits to enterprises of FMC may extend to: · Always-on connectivity to telephony, mail, business applications · One device, one subscription, one number: Decreasing costs, increasing manageability, simplify billing · Improved total cost of ownership for PBX, mobile services, WAN · New services: IM, instant conferencing. While the complete range of both consumer and enterprise services and applications to be powered by FMC are still some way off, operators including KPN, France Telecom and the UK's BT are passing through a stage IDC describes as pre-convergence, in which commercial convergence has occurred and a single bundle of multiple services for a single price is on offer. Product-level convergence is the next stage, where services that are offered provide voice and data roaming between WiFi and cellular networks. The converged environment is characterised by the introduction of new multimedia services as network convergence and seamless handover between networks occurs. Handset convergence would also have occurred, where one device will be able to be used for multiple access types and applications, and the end-user would find it virtually unaware of the underlying network type. ||**||

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