In-Stat recently published a report on FMC. It shows most people still relatively uninterested in running voice on increasingly pervasive Wi-Fi networks, though PBX users are intrigued by the potential of dual-mode phones.
Potentially VoIP calls can sound radically better than what we are used to even on landline phones. So why don’t they? It may be lack of will. Some say the success of the mobile phone industry proves that people don’t care about sound quality on their calls. I don’t think this is a valid inference. All it proves is that people value mobility higher than sound quality.
The telephonic journey from mouth to ear, often thousands of miles in tens of milliseconds, traverses a chain of many weak links, each compounding the impairment of the sound. First, the phone. Whether it’s a headset, a desk phone or a PC, the microphone and speakers have to be capable of transmitting the full frequency spectrum of the human voice without loss, distortion or echo. Second the digital encoding of the call; it has to be done with a wideband codec. Third, the codec has to be end-to-end, so no hops through the circuit switched phone network. Finally the network must convey the media packets swiftly and reliably, since delayed packets are effectively lost, and lost packets reduce sound quality.
Discussions of VoIP QoS normally dwell mainly on the last of these factors, but the others are at least as important. The exciting thing about dual-mode cell phones is that they provide a means to cut through them. Because they must handle polyphonic ring tones and iPod-type capabilities, the speakers on most cell phones can easily carry the full frequency range of the human voice. Cell phone microphones can also pick up the required range, and DSP techniques can mitigate the physical acoustic design challenges of the cell phone form factor. Smart phone processors have the oomph to run modern wideband codecs. This leaves the issue of staying on the IP network from end-to-end. The great thing about dual-mode phones is that they can connect directly to the Internet in the two places where most people spend most of their time: at work and at home.
So if you and the person you are talking to are both in a Wi-Fi enabled location, and you both have a dual mode cell phone, your calls should not only be free, but the sound should be way better than toll quality.
Check out the V2oIP website for an industry initiative on this topic.
On the phone front, a review in today’s Journal is the LG “Shine,” This looks like a Razr that slides instead of flips, and with a much bigger screen. The large LCD is a mirror when the phone is idle. This LCD/mirror technology is reminiscent of the Philips Miravision TV, a product that would be a runaway success if they priced it competitively. The Shine is the next step in LG’s project to bring fashion design to cell phones, preceded by the Chocolate and the Prada phones. Judging by the photo in the paper, the Shine is just a regular simple phone – which is exactly what a huge segment of cellphone users want. If it performs this basic function superbly – making clear calls with good reception – it will be a hit. Unfortunately the Journal hints that the fashion trade-off may have gone too far; the trendy metal casing may impair reception of the wireless signal.
Detractors of Fixed Mobile Convergence can’t see the value in being able to walk into your office talking on a cell phone, then pick up your desk phone and seamlessly continue the call. They are right; that’s a small hook on which to hang a massive reworking of the corporate voice network. But that’s not Fixed Mobile Convergence, so it’s a straw-man argument. In Fixed-Mobile Convergence, you walk into your office talking on a cell phone, sit down, and continue the conversation on the same cell phone. The value driver is that you no longer need a desk phone – that’s a big saving.
So now you are wondering where the “convergence” is in this scenario. Isn’t this just FMS – Fixed Mobile Substitution? Yes and no. If the wireless connection remains cellular it is FMS. But the second big value driver comes in if it seamlessly transitions to Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, and stops using cellular minutes. This is FMC. The line between FMC and FMS is quite blurred. FMS has the disadvantage that signal coverage can be weak in some buildings, and if everybody in a densely populated office goes the FMS route, the cell won’t have the capacity to serve them all. But this problem is addressed by an interesting new product category called the femtocell, which is just like a Wi-Fi access point except it runs cellular frequencies and protocols. So if you deploy femtocells in your office you are going the FMS route, if you use the Wi-Fi network instead you are doing FMC. So the FMC scenario requires the phones to be dual mode (cellular plus Wi-Fi). FMS has the advantage that the phones can be cheaper, since they can leave out the Wi-Fi radio.
Another issue is who manages the cell phone. Voice Service Providers for years have been pushing a service called Centrex, which obviates the need for a PBX on the company premises. But most businesses have resisted. They prefer to control their communications infrastructure themselves. This same objection applies to FMS, but not necessarily to FMC. With the enterprise oriented (i.e. non-UMA, non-IMS) flavors of FMC, once the call is on the Wi-Fi network it is just a regular VoIP call on the corporate PBX. This means that it is billed at non-cellular rates (free on internal calls), and it can offer all the regular PBX features.
From a market segment point of view, the Blackberry is the closest thing to an enterprise cell phone that currently exists. But it doesn’t (yet) offer any PBX call features nor does it have Wi-Fi, and it is sold through and controlled by the mobile network operators, so it also fails on the score of not being controlled by the IT department.
Nokia, recognizing these issues, sells their Eseries phones not only through mobile operators but also through interconnects, the same distribution channel as PBXs. Nokia has also endowed their Eseries phones with enterprise-grade manageability (though it is with carrier oriented OMA-DM, rather than the enterprise oriented WBEM). So Nokia’s Eseries strategy still lacks PBX features on the phone. But the Eseries phones run on Symbian’s S60 operating system, for which there is a vibrant developer community, so if there isn’t yet a third-party PBX style client for it, there soon will be.
Another cell phone project taking this approach is OpenMoko. This goes even further than Nokia’s Eseries, since all the software, including the operating system (Linux) is open source.
Corporations have trimmed their telecommunications expenses down to the bone, but there is still a huge telephone-related money leak at most companies. This is the cell phone bill that so many employees simply expense, so it isn’t a controlled part of the IT department budget.
Businesses are finding it increasingly urgent to manage their cell phones the way they manage their network and computer equipment. One company seeking to help with this is IntegratedMobile.
But bringing cell phones under the corporate manageability umbrella is just the first step in integrating them into the IT strategy. The next step is to treat them the same way as regular phones for their voice capabilities, and as laptops for their data capabilities.
Treating phones the same way we treat laptops would call for a standard managed corporate software build with a common image worldwide.
Treating cell phones the same way we treat corporate desk phones would call for them to have all the standard PBX phone features, and to be administered on the PBX the same way desk phones are.
The trouble with this vision is that there is no worldwide mobile network operator (MNO), and in the US the phones are normally bought through the MNO. So the phone doesn’t exist that can be centrally bought, has a common manageable image installed, and can be deployed worldwide.
Value-conscious consumers are increasingly wondering why they need to pay for two phones, and deciding to save by ditching their wireline phone. This is technically termed FMS – Fixed Mobile Substitution, . Will the same thing happen in the business phone world? There’s a precedent for it. Desktop computers are being routed from offices by mobile PCs. Could desktop phones be displaced by mobile ones in the same way? It has been reported that more than half of calls made from businesses are cellular, so the substitution in usage is well under way already.
There are several objections. The sound quality of cellular conversations is abysmal. The cost per minute is much higher. Business desk phones have all sorts of features that cell phones lack. The form factor of cell phones is inconvenient in some ways – you can’t clamp them to your ear with your shoulder, to free up your hands. Plus cordless phones have been available for PBXs for years, and they have sold very badly.
Almost everybody in business has a cell phone. There is no way that these people are going to abandon their cell phones, but if the technical and usability obstacles are removed, they may see no further need for a desk phone. Cutting this expense has to be attractive to businesses focussed on ROI.