Speak to any number of technology vendors about what fixed mobile convergence (FMC) means to them and the likelihood is that you will receive a number of different answers. The fact is that FMC is an umbrella term for so many different things that it has become almost meaningless without further elaboration.

Glyn Owen argues that the business case for enterprise fixed mobile convergence is being lost in the debate around the technology and outlines how ICT managers should approach deploying FMC now and in the future.

Currently there are lots of access technologies (such as wi-fi, GSM, Bluetooth, WiMAX) and hardware (dual-mode handsets, wireless access points, GSM picocells / femtocells) that are seen as enablers of FMC, driven by both large telecom network operators and smaller niche technology companies.

Within this area there is considerable debate as to which access technology will dominate and whether the market will see wide-scale adoption of hardware such as dual-mode handsets. Yet, increasingly the business case for FMC is being lost amongst the technology jargon - for enterprise customers this can be a potential source of confusion and a barrier deploying FMC solutions.

FMC should simply mean user-centric rather than device-centric communications: one user identity, one unified messaging system and device independence. Most importantly, it should provide users with a consistent experience regardless of location and time of day with no interruption of service between fixed-line and mobile networks.

The importance of mobiles is evident as they increasingly become the preferred communication device of choice replacing desk phones in many offices. This growing trend is fuelling the demand for ubiquitous coverage and operators will need to rise to the challenge and offer seamless coverage as well as innovative services, if customer churn is to be reduced or new customers are to be attracted.

Ultimately this can lead to greater efficiency, improved customer interaction and greater cost control.

Why FMC?

ICT managers at companies of all sizes are faced with the challenges of reducing and controlling mobile spending. Trimming expenditure and improving efficiency is even more important in times of economic difficulties when IT budgets are typically the first to be cut. Most have their fixed-line telecoms costs under control, however, their fixed-to-mobile call and standalone mobile charges have become a growing element of cost.

Poor control of mobile call charges has been a pain point for many organisations, especially those whose employees travel abroad and roam across international phone networks. While some firms issue handsets to employees and are billed directly, others reimburse expenses, which can be time-consuming and a big administrative burden. By not managing mobile device usage and creating mobility policies, many enterprises are paying far more for enterprise mobility than they should be.

In addition, a growing number of mobile phone calls are placed from within buildings when employees are in reach of a fixed-line phone. It is estimated that 40-80 per cent of all mobile device usage occurs when employees are stationary and inside their place of work or their home. As a result, companies end up with an under-utilised, but cost-effective, fixed telephony system and an over-utilised, but expensive, mobile service.

Enterprise FMC will give ICT managers and CIOs greater control over their mobile users and make mobility more affordable for a greater portion of the employee base, enabling them to deliver greater productivity and cost-saving benefits.

Recent research by Aberdeen Group, Fixed Mobile Convergence in the Enterprise, found that best-in-class organisations that have deployed FMC solutions have benefited from significantly higher levels of employee performance and workflow efficiencies. As part of their strategy to increase workforce flexibility, they have employed a variety of top-down policy initiatives, processes and mobility-focused technologies, such as wi-fi-enabled smartphones, WLANs and unified communications solutions.

How to approach FMC

Currently, there are three broad approaches to FMC:

  • A handset-centric dual-mode approach - this is where the enterprise replaces the mobile network with short-range radio technology, such as WiFi or Bluetooth, in the office. The mobile network is retained for out-of-office mobility and the enterprise retains its PBX for desktop phones.
  • Fixed mobile integration (FMI) - this is where the enterprise uses signalling and/or VPN functionality to integrate mobile phones into the enterprise private branch exchange (PBX), providing enhanced mobile functionality and giving it more control over call routing and costs. The enterprise retains its PBX, its desktop phones and mobile devices.
  • Fixed mobile substitution (FMS) - in this approach the enterprise replaces desktop phones with mobile devices. FMS can be provided through a hosted service. At a stroke this can eliminate all the costs associated with LAN engineering for VoIP and redundant investment in often rarely used fixed-line desktop phones.

Another factor to consider is the increasing convergence between WiFi and GSM technology - this is resulting in voice-over-WiFi starting to be one of the main drivers of FMC in the future. With the increased availability of WiFi-enabled handheld devices, the seamless handover of voice calls between GSM and enterprise wireless broadband networks will become a very attractive proposition. That said enterprises will need to consider many factors such as network security, bandwidth provision and quality of service, if voice-over-WiFi services are to be successful.

How FMC is delivered to enterprise customers is also critical. While many businesses have in-house teams to run PBX and desktop phones, it is unlikely they would want to take on the task of supporting thousands of devices running third party client software. With this in mind one solution would be to outsource the FMC function to a managed service provider or systems integrator. This would help alleviate a lot of the hassle traditionally associated with mobile device management and allow ICT managers to concentrate on other mission-critical areas of their business.

FMC in the future

Undoubtedly, larger telecom network operators will play an increasing role in enterprise FMC. To date, ICT managers have kept operators at arm's length by deploying FMC solutions driven by smaller niche technology companies; however, this is likely to change as network operators roll out IP-based public networks.

This will mean sweeping changes to the communications services that are delivered to businesses in the future. For example, a recent survey of UK telecoms managers found that many believed that BT's 21st Century Network (21CN) upgrade would improve wide area network (WAN) bandwidth, enhance voice and data efficiency, improve networked IT services and deliver converged voice and data services. Of course the BT21CN project may bring its own challenges. Whatever the potential drawbacks, this represents one of the most important milestones in the recent history of telecoms and, if all goes well, a number of operators are likely to follow BT's example.

The utopia of FMC of public networks is still some way off, so it will be interesting to see how this will develop over time. The age of FMC is here and now, so it is now up to enterprise users to develop effective strategies to ensure that their FMC deployments will meet their business needs.

Glyn Owen is business development manager at Damovo UK.