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Brough Turner, SVP, CTO and Co-Founder of NMS Communications


The Impact of VoIP, WiFi and 3G Data on Wireless Telecom: How Fixed-Mobile Convergence Will Reshape the Wireless Industry

Recently, there's been a great deal of industry chatter about fixed-mobile convergence (FMC). Mobile network operators plan to leverage emerging IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) service platforms to deliver true “one phone, one number” telephony over both fixed and mobile infrastructure. This means your mobile handset will use 2G/3G mobile infrastructure when you are outdoors and VoIP over WiFi or Bluetooth when you are at work or at home.


Mobile operators see IMS and FMC as an opportunity to take additional market share from traditional fixed line operators. But mobile operators are kidding themselves if they think they can control the FMC market for very long. Once high speed Internet access becomes available on mobile phones, a plethora of VoIP services will follow.

Fixed-mobile convergence

Many mobile operators are interested in the potential for growth through FMC. At this year's 3GSM World Congress, CEOs from NTT DoCoMo, T-Mobile and Orange spoke on a keynote panel. A major discussion point was that most telephone calls originate from inside buildings, where mobile coverage is poorest. As such, residential users are often forced to keep their fixed-line services for use when they are at home. The same applies in office buildings, with the added problem that wireless operators haven't been in a position to offer the Centrex or PBX features that enterprises require. In theory, however, that could potentially change with the advent of IMS and FMC, at least in theory.

In Japan, NTT DoCoMo is trying to address the coverage problem in major office buildings with nano-cells and in-building repeaters, but the more widely applicable approach is to introduce FMC services for business and residential users based on IMS. Fixed-mobile convergence is attractive to operators because IMS is a logical extension of their existing networks and the resulting services make the most of operators like NTT DoCoMo's installed base. In addition, FMC represents an opportunity for the mobile operator to sell new services directly to enterprises. That could be huge. Today, most mobile services are sold to consumers, even though the bills are often paid by enterprises. Establishing a direct relationship with the enterprise opens new service and new revenue possibilities for mobile operators.

Fixed-mobile convergence relies on broadband Internet access for the “fixed” part and wireless LANs to enable converged handsets. The timing is right as wireless LANs cover many enterprises today and home WiFi setups are spreading rapidly. Broadband Internet access is also available in thousands of public hotspots, through a confusing range of service offerings — some rather expensive, and others completely free. The first round of convergence depends upon handsets that support 2G, 3G and WiFi connections on the same phone. Mobile operators then use an IMS platform to transparently combine regular mobile service on their 2G or 3G mobile network with VoIP services over WiFi and/or fixed broadband access. And because the mobile portion of FMC uses the existing mobile number and existing mobile switching systems, mobile operators have an advantage.

Competing with VoIP Service Providers

This advantage is critical because of the dozens of VoIP service providers that have crowded the market. With FMC, the mobile operators' advantages are significant for not just their large customer base that relies on familiar mobile functionality, but — even more importantly — broad coverage going far beyond anything we can imagine for WiFi in the next ten years. Without broadband Internet access, the VoIP service providers are a significantly smaller threat to mobile operators' FMC services. As the Yankee Group notes, “the aim of fixed-mobile convergence is to hit the sweet spot of high convenience and low cost.”

VoIP vendors will be in a better position to provide their own FMC if WiMAX delivers on its promise of wireless broadband Internet access, but widespread WiMAX deployments are likely to take years. Instead, the VoIP competitive threat may be enabled by the mobile operators' own data services.

Impact of 3G Data Services

After many delays, 3G networks are now being rolled out at a great rate. These networks offer all the normal mobile telephony services plus “high speed” data access. 3G operators may initially limit this data access to their own branded data services — the “walled garden” approach — or at least price open Internet access significantly higher than access to their own traditional data services. The mobile market, however, is very competitive, and there are plenty of consumer and business demands for access to the open Internet. In fact, flat rate bundles for data access services are already available in some markets.

A potential limit on VoIP over 3G data access might be the limited upstream capability of the initial 3G services. W-CDMA can deliver up to 384 kbps downstream but only 64 kbps upstream. On the other hand, 64 kbps is adequate for most VoIP services. There has already been a public demonstration on the Italian TV program " Le Iene " (" The Hyenas ") — a mix of investigative journalism, reality TV and sensationalism — which showed Skype running on a smartphone using a UMTS data connection from the 3G operator “3” and succeeded in placing a SkypeOut call at substantial savings over a normal voice call on the “3” network.

Today there are dozens of VoIP services are available over the public Internet. Skype is the most prominent example, because it's grown to be the world's largest VoIP provider (38 million registered users) in less than two years. Skype has already cut a deal with Motorola to embed the Skype client in Motorola's WiFi-enabled mobile phones, which means Skype could be cutting into mobile operators' consumer voice revenues — especially roaming charges — within the next 12 months. European providers in particular are at greater risk than their U.S. counterparts. European per-minute rates are higher, roaming is more frequent, and flat-rate bundles of minutes are still a fairly new concept.

Independent VoIP services are a looming threat for 3G mobile operators. Fixed-mobile convergence will provide them a viable competitive advantage for a while. But as 3G data services get better, WiFi continues to spread and WiMAX emerges, the VoIP service providers will begin to compete head-to-head with the mobile operators offering their own converged services. Will this be significant in the 12 months? No. The next three years? Perhaps. The next five years? For sure!

Mobile operators of the future

What's a mobile operator to do? Obviously there's an advantage for mobile operators to roll out FMC services as quickly as possible to build a strong base and a strong brand while their competitive advantage survives. Further out, however, there will be some hard decisions to make.

To help predict the future, it's worth looking at the past. Consider America Online (AOL), which ten years ago was the fastest-growing ISP. America Online's business consisted of two distinct segments that were inextricably bound together: its services (including the portal, chat rooms, email and other apps and content), and its dialup access facilities. First, as the Internet grew, AOL's customers sought access to content outside the AOL walled garden. That was easy; AOL opened the walled garden and interconnected with the rest of the Internet. Then broadband services began to appear. America Online executives were faced with the burning question: Was AOL going to be a facilities-based Internet access provider, or was AOL actually a provider of exclusive content, i.e. a brand? Long story short, AOL decided it was a brand. It sold its dialup access network to someone who could operate it for the company and focused on its services, now available via any form of Internet access.

3G operators will be faced with problems similar to those that confronted AOL in the mid 1990s as the Internet grew and then broadband access emerged. The services layer (first content delivery and then converged telephony) will become independent of the underlying network (broadband Internet access). Ultimately, a voice connection between two people on the open Internet will incur no extra charge beyond that for Internet access. Users will pay for mobile broadband Internet access, and then acquire additional content, products and services on the open market just as they do today for web-based services: they get broadband access in their home but acquire most of their content and services from other brands over the Internet (Google, Yahoo, Amazon, eBay, Vonage, etc.) and not from their broadband access provider.

Becoming an Internet Brand

Eventually, mobile operators will need to split their integrated mobile telephony business into a mobile access business and one or more Internet brands, so they'd be well advised to start planning for that right now. An FMC service will take them beyond their own networks. Can this be built into an independent VoIP service that works anywhere? And can the walled garden content services be built into Internet brands? For example, Vodafone currently offers “Vodafone live!” content on the Vodafone network. Is there a way to make some of the exclusive “Vodafone live!” content available over the general Internet and make it sufficiently compelling so that non-Vodafone customers would take interest? Operators need to consider their brand development now, so that when the broadband Internet is truly mobile-accessible, they have built Internet brands in addition to (and separable from) their telephony brand.

Today, mobile operators have an opportunity to profit from an aggressive rollout of FMC services, with their inherent but short-term advantages, to build a global branded VoIP service that can survive when competing VoIP providers start leveraging mobile broadband Internet access.

About the Author

Brough Turner is SVP, CTO and co-founder of NMS Communications, where he oversees the evolution of NMS's technology and product architectures and works on business strategy and new market development. Brough has broad business experience, but focuses on engineering, technology, and products. His current interests include mobile video, multimodal applications, and wireless infrastructure.

Brough writes and is quoted widely on telecommunications topics in both trade and general business publications, and he is a frequent speaker at telecoms industry events around the world. He holds a BSEE from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

For further information, contact Brough at:

NMS Communications

100 Crossing Blvd.

Framingham, MA 01702

Tel: 800-533-6120

Fax: 508-620-9313







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