Products delivering fixed mobile convergence let enterprise administrators fully integrate mobile phones with the PBX, extending the reach and power of the companies’ telephony infrastructure to mobile users both in the office and on the road. By granting seamless mobility between voice over Wi-Fi and cellular voice service, companies could potentially see a dramatic decrease in the amount of mobile minutes used. However, implementers must evaluate whether these cost savings are offset by upgrades likely needed to the PBX, wireless network and mobile smartphone fleet in order for the initiative to be successful.
At the heart of the matter, FMC (fixed mobile convergence) solutions fully integrate mobile phones into the corporate PBX. With FMC, mobile users can be reached on their smartphone by dialing a corporate extension (the same extension that is likely already assigned to a desk phone), can easily place calls using either the corporate extension caller ID or the mobile phone’s personality, can leverage 4-digit dialing for other enterprise extensions, and can access the corporate telephony directory for lookups.
However, FMC solutions will also leverage available Wi-Fi networks for cost savings, allowing the user to seamlessly use voice over Wi-Fi technology when in the office-or, in some cases, remotely-which could potentially save the enterprise much money on cellular minutes used up when the employee is in actually in-pocket. Therefore, FMC solutions need to have the intelligence to locate and connect a user’s smartphone no matter if they are connected via Wi-Fi or the cellular network, and the solutions must be able to seamlessly move calls between the networks when the user moves in and out of the building.
In my recent tests of FMC products from Agito Networks and DiVitas Networks, I found that the solutions available today deliver on all these fronts, doing so in a fashion that does not require the smartphones to have mobile data services, although some features will be missing without such service. Specifically, directory lookups when connected to the cellular network will not be possible without data services.
DiVitas has also taken some baby steps towards implementing a richer mobile unified communications experience that will require the end point to have cellular data service. Specifically, DiVitas’ client application now offers presence capabilities-identifying which other DiVitas users are available at the moment, what forms of communications are currently being accepted, and passing along a status message-as well as instant text messaging service between Divitas users.
To enable FMC in the enterprise, customers will need to have a central PBX that is SIP-enabled, because the FMC controller will need to trunk into the PBX and the clients may connect directly to the PBX as well, depending on which solution we are talking about. The smartphone’s relationship to the PBX will depend on the FMC solution in question.
DiVitas fully utilizes trunk-side connectivity between the pieces of the FMC solutions and the PBX, meaning that the phones register with the FMC server component, which in turn proxies communications to the PBX. All call initialization and tear down, as well as the call media payload, go through the FMC server. This arrangement should lead to a wider array of supported PBXes (as the PBX just needs to support SIP trunks), but in essence, a system administrator will then be managing two PBXes (each with their own call routing patterns and voicemail capabilities) as the FMC server is by necessity its own PBX.
Agito Networks, on the other hand, utilizes both trunk- and line-side connectivity. Call management traffic trunks through the FMC server, while the media payload goes directly to the PBX or the other end of the call (depending on the type of call). Line-side connectivity requires much work on the backend from the FMC vendor, as patches to the PBX could break the connectivity. But careful planning of PBX upgrades and collaboration with FMC support should alleviate these concerns. So line-side connectivity will likely limit the number of PBXes that are supported by the FMC vendor, but in theory should allow better use of the native features of those PBX solutions that are supported.
Having a Flexible Mobile Management Solution
Companies interested in deploying FMC services should also spend a good amount of time qualifying their wireless networks for the increased demands of voice traffic. Certainly the network will need to support WMM (wireless multimedia extensions) for quality of service over the wireless link, and key pre-caching will also benefit handover in a tightly secured network. However, more generally, wireless administrators should take another look at the coverage overlaps through the Wi-Fi-enabled areas, as areas under-covered for voice traffic may not have reared their heads when supporting data traffic only.
The FMC solutions of today are geared towards bringing smartphones from just a few makers into the PBX fold. Nokia phones running the Symbian mobile operating system are particularly favored as the device maker does a good job adding features much needed for VOIP (voice over IP) communications and PBX integration-such as power efficient Wi-Fi radios and advanced voice codecs-and exposing the right APIs in the operating system for FMC makers to tap into.
Windows Mobile-based phones are also commonly supported, but the support gets dicier here. Older Windows Mobile phones may not offer efficient Wi-Fi radios, and the devices are occasionally not designed to route VOIP audio to the headset speaker. Indeed, during my recent tests of both the Agito and Divitas FMC platforms, in both cases I found that I needed to perform firmware upgrades on relatively recent smartphones such as the AT&T Tilt (which is an HTC device) in order for the smartphone to work properly.
Because firmware upgrades to the smartphone fleet could be a common exercise for FMC implementers, having a flexible mobile management solution-one that can track firmware revisions of in-the-field devices, perform over-the-air firmware upgrades, and deliver updated software packages (like the FMC client) in a timely fashion-will be a critical element towards success of the integration.
Unfortunately for U.S. business customers, none of the FMC vendors that we talked to today support BlackBerry devices from RIM for use with their systems. Over the last few years, RIM’s devices gained such a strong foothold in American business because they did a great job of solving the last killer mobile app-e-mail. But because of the efforts RIM customers have made to deploy BlackBerry devices-including deploying backend BlackBerry Enterprise Servers and associated monitoring and management solutions-FMC makers will likely find it difficult to gain traction with U.S. customers unwilling to throw the old and operational in favor of the new and experimental, especially given the additional costs that must be incurred to deploy new phones running a different operating system, porting other applications to the new operating system, and deploying backend management systems to reign in the whole thing.
Even if these FMC vendors were able to add RIM devices to their supported stable, it is likely that enterprise customers do not have a widely installed base of BlackBerrys that offer Wi-Fi at all. Over the last 18 months, RIM has made strides with their Wi-Fi support-integrating very good WLAN radios and with robust-enterprise grade security-but the penetration of these radios into the BlackBerry device portfolio has remained limited. While devices like the BlackBerry Bold, the BlackBerry 8820, or the Curve 8320 offer Wi-Fi support, the vast majority of deployed BlackBerries do not. Even new flagship models like the forthcoming BlackBerry Storm will not have Wi-Fi in its initial incarnation.
Through partner relationships, however, RIM is offering a subset of the FMC functionality. Through its middleware solution, Ascendant Systems offers BlackBerry customers the one-number point of contact, integrated voicemail and enterprise PBX dial-tone on their smartphones that we see with other FMC solutions, but without leveraging Wi-Fi connections for in-office calls that could reduce aggregate cell phone minute usage.
eWEEK Labs Senior Technical Analyst Andrew Garcia can be reached at [email protected]