Start-up's novel approach converges cellular, Wi-Fi

Start-up Agito Networks Inc. officially removes its cloak of invisibility today with the announcement of the company and its first product, an enterprise router designed to pull cellular phone traffic onto the corporate Wi-Fi network when employees are on-premise.

Agito joins a host of other players, including start-up DiVitas Networks and carriers Sprint Nextel Corp. and AT&T Inc., out to bridge these radio realms, what some call the hottest issue in wireless.

"Mobile convergence is the single most important trend in wireless today," said Craig Mathias, an analyst at consultancy Farpoint Group and a Computerworld columnist. "Phones with Wi-Fi, cell [and] maybe even support for WiMax mobile built in will finally get us to the point where the mobile phone is our only phone. We won't have desk phones anymore."

At the very least, this convergence simplifies the life of mobile professionals by giving them one contact number and one voice mailbox to tend to, instead of versions of both for their desk and cell phones. But Agito co-founder and Vice President of Marketing Pej Roshan said that mobile convergence runs deeper, compensating for spotty cell phone coverage, containing cell costs and providing more traditional enterprise phone controls.

Roshan, who worked in Cisco Systems Inc.'s wireless network business with Agito co-founder and CEO Timothy Olson, said the company's RoamAnywhere product consists of a hardened Linux-based routing appliance and software clients for smart phones. The 2000 Series of the router can support up to 100 simultaneous users, while the 4000 Series will support up to 1,000. Because the router sits in the call control path instead of the media path, failure of the device won't take down existing links.

Initial client support will be for smart phones based on Windows Mobile or Nokia Corp.'s Symbian operating system. Subsequent releases will add support for Research In Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerry devices. Provisioning the client is achieved by authorizing user groups and then having users in those groups surf to a Web site that walks them through a simple install process, Roshan said, adding, "In a few minutes, they can start to make calls."

Once implemented, calls to a user's desk or cell phone will ring both devices and, if unanswered, roll into one mailbox, as is true with other mobile convergence systems. Agito's "secret sauce" is in how it uses location awareness to figure out when to hand calls off from one environment to the other and its support for location-aware routing policies.

Agito said that studies and customer experience show the bulk of cell calls -- 65% in the case of one beta user -- are made from within company buildings, so it set out to ensure that those calls are handled by Wi-Fi. However, instead of using signal strength to decide which network to use to handle calls like some competitors do, it bases the decision on location awareness ascertained using radio frequency technology.

"Signal strength varies widely within buildings, so we create route points at ingress and egress points and use those to make routing decisions," Roshan said. After the appliance is installed, these points are created by taking a phone to each entrance and pushing a button, he explained. The appliance acknowledges that point as an entrance and pushes that information out to other clients. Then, when someone carries a dual-mode phone into the building past one of these points, the device will automatically switch from cell to Wi-Fi and vice versa on departure.

Besides optimizing use of Wi-Fi where possible, this approach helps ensure a seamless handoff between the two realms, Roshan said. Users talking on the phone while exiting a building, for example, will have the replacement cell call established and ready for handoff before the Wi-Fi signal drops off.

While a clever approach, it might not be as important a differentiator as Agito might claim. "All the vendors deal with handoff fairly seamlessly," said Mathias, who has experimented with many of them. "It will really depend on how each performs in a given situation under specific conditions."

With Agito, the actual decision about which network to be on is made by the client based on a number of factors, such as cost, reliability of the network, the network load, delay characteristics and the quality of the session (bit error rates or packet loss). "The client considers all of that even if it has passed a route point and is inside a building with Wi-Fi," Roshan said.

Distributing the network decision-making to the client and keeping the router out of the media path are two architectural decisions that helps ensure the product can scale, Roshan said. But Vivek Khuller, CEO and founder of competitor DiVitas, questioned the sensibility of putting that much control in the handset because smart phones are replaced so frequently -- every six to 18 months, by his count. With DiVitas, the appliance attached to the private branch exchange retains the decision-making capability.

Agito said the other advantage that location awareness provides is the ability to build dynamic call routing policies. "You may have a policy, for example, that says all calls to my office number roll to voice mail after 10 p.m. so my phone doesn't ring at home, but if I'm still in the office allow the calls through," Roshan said. "The system determines where you are and what rules apply."

While mobile convergence can help contain costs by reducing the number of cell minutes consumed, the promise of simplifying the life of mobile workers is what encouraged Patrick Tisdale to sign up as an Agito beta tester. Tisdale is CIO of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, a global law firm with 18 offices and 1,200 attorneys whose business professionals tout voice and data BlackBerries.

"Mobility is really important," Tisdale said. "There is lots of movement among floors in our centralized office buildings, and among buildings in our campus settings. We want the attorneys to be able to move around without having to carry multiple devices and without worrying about multiple voice-mail systems."

He said he was drawn to Agito because, unlike the options offered by cellular carriers, Agito is product- and telecommunications service-agnostic. Tisdale said he will be evaluating the product using Nokia phones while waiting for Agito to add BlackBerry support.

Another key motivator for Tisdale is that many of the modern buildings his firm occupies are high-tech and "green," with thick lined, energy-efficient windows that amount to a wall of lead when it comes to cell phone signals. Agito will keep attorneys' cell phones alive in those environments, he said.

Agito plans to begin commercial shipments before year's end. The 2000 Series router starts at $10,000 for 25 users, and the 4000 starts at $25,000 for 100 users.

Asked to rate Agito compared with competitors, Mathias said that Agito has a strong CEO and a good management team. "They'll be competitive," he said, "but there's plenty of room for growth for all of them."

This story, "Start-up's novel approach converges cellular, Wi-Fi" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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