Combined Wi-Fi, Cell Services? Not Yet

LONDON -- The components necessary for combined voice-over-Wi-Fi and cellular services are all just now becoming available, but it will likely take another year or two before either consumer or enterprise customers start widely using such services, said experts at the Fixed Mobile Convergence Conference here on Thursday.

"We'll see some adventurous enterprises dabbling in it this year," predicted Mike Roberts, principal analyst at Informa UK. He called 2006 an experimental year for services that let users make voice calls over Wi-Fi networks or cellular networks from a single device.

That's because user devices, widespread broadband availability, low-cost Wi-Fi equipment, and 3G (third-generation) cellular networks are now available, but some components still need to improve. Historically, for example, first generation handsets supporting a new technology tend to underwhelm and he expects that the early combined Wi-Fi and cellular handsets may not get the user interface or even the technology right.

The industry needs to mature a bit before widespread use, agreed Elaine Treacy, vice president of marketing at Cicero Networks, the developer of handset software and a back-end server that together support voice over Wi-Fi as well as cellular phone calls. Seven European operators are testing Cicero's software. "We're at the experimentation stage with a view to a 2007 launch," said Treacy. Cicero's products are already used by Talktelecom in Ireland, but Cicero has a view to a larger deployment in Europe.

What About the Customers?

In perhaps an indication of the early stage of the fixed mobile convergence market, much of the focus is on the hardware and software required, as well as the business case for the operators, rather than on the customer, said Malcolm Myers, senior vice president of strategy and business development for TDC Switzerland. "The equipment manufacturers and software companies are excited about convergence," he said. "But the end customers aren't." He said operators will have to work on how to spur demand for the services.

That angle led some attendees to criticize British Telecommunications PLC (BT). Last year BT became one of the first operators to launch a service that lets customers use a single handset to make voice over Wi-Fi calls while in the home and cellular calls elsewhere. But some attendees were eager to find fault with the Fusion service, for which BT hasn't released subscription numbers.

Fusion isn't easy for customers to sign up for, noted Sanjay Jhawar, senior vice president of marketing and business development for BridgePort Networks , a company that develops products that operators use to offer converged mobile services to customers. Fusion customers must separately sign up for BT's broadband service as well as a mobile plan through BT, which Jhawar said could be difficult for some customers who might be in the middle of a contract with another mobile operator. Also, BT is selling just two handsets, and that slim choice might also be slowing demand, Jhawar said.

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