At the heart of convergence

Operators believe IP multimedia subsystems (IMS) will be the key component of next generation communications networks — and unlicensed mobile access (UMA) will enhance these services

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By  Ghassan El Housseini Published  September 8, 2006

Telecom operators in the Middle East face a changing market, with growing competition, the convergence of fixed and mobile services and an ongoing need to increase average revenue per user (ARPU) and customer loyalty.

These operators are looking to technologies that will allow them to provide seamless service to their customers as next-generation networks develop.

As these next-generation communications networks are evolving, it is becoming apparent that internet protocol (IP) multimedia subsystems (IMS) will be at the centre of this evolution.

As IP is integrated into network cores, the technology will facilitate the logical evolution of telecoms services to support ‘seamless mobility’ where the optimum access technology is automatically provisioned as subscribers move across domains such as home, office, vehicle and roaming.

While developments in IMS standards for voice call continuity progress, the first seamless mobility experiences are being introduced.

Unlicensed mobile access (UMA) is providing seamless voice and data services through dual-mode handsets using WiFi and GSM access networks enhancing services and providing a low-cost, high-bandwidth capability.

Network assets

In a few simple steps, UMA creates a compelling service proposition: broadband provides a ready-made access infrastructure to those homes that can be connected to the service with the connection of WiFi, and establishes a low-cost, high-quality residential wireless network, enhanced with the option of using a mobile handset.

By the end of 2005, ADSL accounted for 24.4% of all internet accounts in the UAE, a growth of 132% from 2004, according to Arab Advisors Group.

IDC figures have shown there are already around half a million broadband connections in Egypt, with an expected three million broadband connections by 2010.

Other countries across the region are similarly ramping up broadband roll out.

Operators can provision services cost-efficiently by exploiting WiFi and GSM resources while improving indoor coverage — each user effectively has an individual micro-cell to overcome coverage issues without the need for the operator to invest in infrastructure.

GSM capacities are optimised by removing load from the cellular network, while the technology provides a bridgehead to market high-speed data services to the home; an important asset as the market gathers momentum.

The package offers significant revenue potential; subscribers regularly use mobiles in-building often when a fixed phone is available, convenience and features such as the personal phonebook enhance the voice service.

UMA, by providing lower cost home calls, will encourage users to connect using their mobile handsets more often, while maintaining the mobility premium outdoors.

Feedback from extensive UMA trials and consumer research reveals that subscribers value the versatility of UMA, while highly competitive home-zone pricing is a strong incentive to switch to a package withmobile, broadband and fixed phone service.

In a 2005 European survey, 53% of respondents revealed that they would probably buy a UMA service. Moreover, UMA can add new features that will engage subscribers with the first unified service packages.

Service benefits

Many customers are keen to have the benefits of mobile services and a fixed line phone at home, because a dedicated home phone is seen to be highly reliable and because a fixed number provides a family’s contact point.

Furthermore, call cost is an issue — people do not want family and friends paying higher charges associated with calling mobiles.

The ability of UMA to locate the mobile handset to the home enables enhanced phone features such as the option of a dual-ring for fixed and mobile devices — when the home number is called, the fixed phone and mobile phones ring.

The call can be answered by either device and transferred between phones.

In trials, the concurrent call facility is well received: even if the fixed line home phone is in use, calls can be made through the mobile handset over WiFi.

Service providers with fixed/ mobile assets can unite these strengths to provide compelling converged services offering the potential to capture a customer’s entire communications spend.

For mobile operators, UMA can increase mobile usage in the home. They can also offer integrated service packages thr- ough incorporating UMA with fixed phone services.

With UMA and mobile operator agreements, fixed-line companies can provide differentiated cost-efficient converged services. And, as much traffic is managed by UMA, network leasing costs reduce.

Changing market

The voice call continuity (VCC) standardisation activity will define how unified voice over IP (VoIP) and cellular are supported within IMS. Once VCC is ratified, compliant handsets and infrastructure need to be developed.

In the meantime, some operators may choose proprietary solutions with limited handset support.

The alternative is UMA. The attraction of UMA is that it is available now and complements IMS/ VCC. UMA can support IMS services in the same way as GSM supports IMS services.

As users need not be aware of the underlying technology, UMA can be offered now and transitioned to VCC later.

Indeed, as UMA and VCC can co-exist in the network and provision the same services, we expect providers to maintain UMA systems to optimise their investments while provisioning new subscribers on VCC.

Judging by the number of operators announcing commercial UMA services, it is accepted as a strong business opportunity.

The clear advantage for operators who make the initial moves on convergence (by embracing UMA) is that they will advance customer loyalty by being first to market with converged services; services that will lower tariffs, enhance convenience and provide a compelling case to consolidate two, or possibly three, communications contracts with a single provider.

With a consolidated view of the customer, the UMA operator will also gain valuable insight into the customer usage, and be able to develop programs to reduce customer churn and build loyalty even further.

“Judging by the number of operators announcing commerciao UMA services, it is accepted as a strong business opportunity."

Technical profile: UMA

Unlicensed mobile access (UMA) uses dual-mode handsets — available now —that are compatible with GSM and WiFi.

When in range of wireless local area network (LAN) coverage, a UMA client on the handset establishes a secure (IPsec) tunnel to the operator’s UMA network controller (UNC).

The UNC connects to the mobile core network using standard GSM interfaces. The UNC transforms the WiFi access point to become part of the GSM network enabling standard GSM techniques to provide call handover between WiFi and GSM.

While UMA is a GSM access technology, voice call continuity (VCC) resides in the core network.

As part of the IP multimedia subsystem (IMS) it provides call handover between packet switched and circuit switched access networks.

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