IT struggles to close the cell phone gap

Network convergence still an elusive goal

For a concept that's remarkably easy to reduce to a sound bite, bridging the gap between cellular phones and enterprise networks ("fixed-mobile convergence", or FMC) remains stubbornly hard to implement.

The basic idea is a mobile device that can use either a Wi-Fi or cellular connection and automatically shift between them to make or take calls, becoming an extension of the enterprise telephony and data networks. It's part of a trend toward the still ill-defined goal of "unified communications." (Compare unified communications products.)

Even with a flock of products designed for this purpose, from big established players and hard-charging start-ups, and even when pilot deployments are successful, enterprise IT executives refrain from taking the FMC plunge. And some of them are looking at either alternatives or interim steps to gain some of the benefits promised by FMC.

"Don't think of this as an all-or-nothing proposition," says Jack Gold, principal at J.Gold Associates, a technology analysis consultancy. "You don't have to do everything, or deploy everything to everyone in your organization. ... Ask yourself, 'How does mobile voice communications help me?'"

It worked but we can't use it

An FMC pilot using Agito Networks' equipment "proved everything we thought it would," says Patrick Tisdale, CIO at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, a Washington, D.C., law firm where keeping in touch with clients anywhere, anytime is essential.

The pilot deployment showed, Tisdale says, that Agito was an effective alternative to expensive cellular signal amplification in Orrick offices; that it would cut to one the various handhelds some lawyers juggled; and that it kept them connected without requiring end users to do anything. But the law firm is holding off on a production deployment for now. The main reason is Agito doesn't yet support Research In Motion's BlackBerry line, the dominant handheld for Orrick attorneys. (Watch a slideshow comparing the BlackBerry Storm to the iPhone.)

The benefits Tisdale confirmed, and the kind of stumbling block to implementation he ran into, are both typical of enterprise experience with voice convergence. "You have to compromise on which handsets you can use, on which PBX systems are supported or not supported, you can't mix and match Wi-Fi gear, or the Wi-Fi vendor hasn't implemented the 802.11r fast-roaming standard, or the phone features the vendor supports aren't the ones you specifically need," says Stan Schatt, vice president at ABI Research, reciting what is clearly a familiar litany of problems.

There are two classes of FMC solutions -- behind-the-firewall servers or carrier-based services, both enabling cell phones with Wi-Fi adapters (so-called dual-mode phones) to link with corporate IP PBXs via cellular or Wi-Fi networks. The former is offered by vendors such as start-ups Agito, DiVitas Networks and Tango Networks, and established vendors like Avaya, NEC and Siemens. In the U.S., T-Mobile's @home service, base on the Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) standard and Kineto Networks hardware, is the leading offering of the second type.

In both, the FMC server works with a client application to detect when a user is moving into and out of range of cellular or Wi-Fi networks. Basically, the server starts a parallel call over the alternate wireless network, mixes the audio from the two sessions and drops the first connection.

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