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What you need to know: This weblog captures key data points about the global telecoms industry. I use it as an electronic notebook to support my work for Pringle Media.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Walls Come Tumbling Down

This post is sponsored by the Enterprise Mobile Hub and Blackberry

Fixed mobile convergence is happening right across telecoms - in the service layer, the enterprise market and the network

A decade from now, the term "mobile industry" may be a quaint anachronism. At the Mobile World Congress in February, it was clear that mobile and fixed-line telecoms are fast converging in multiple ways.

For a long time, there was something special, almost magical, about mobile - it stood apart from ageing copper lines and clunky fixed-line phones.  But, with the rise of Wi-Fi,  that notion seems to be fading. Both consumers and employees just want to connect to their contacts, their cloud-based services and their files regardless of whether they are on a "mobile device", a PC, a mobile network or Wi-Fi.  

Perhaps the most striking example of this broader thinking at the Congress was Telefonica Digital's launch of TU Go in the UK, which enables O2 postpaid customers to make and receive calls on a PC or tablet using their mobile phone number.  “To date a customer’s phone number has been fixed to one particular device," said Jamie Finn, director of communications products. "TU Go changes this, turning the mobile phone into an app.” A harbinger of things to come, TU Go uses cloud-based authentication to break the umbilical chord between the mobile number and the SIM card. 

And it won't be long before any device with a web browser and an Internet connection will be able to make phone calls - At the Congress, Ericsson, Mozilla and AT&T demonstrated a Web Real-Time Communication (WebRTC) proof of concept to show how a web browser can be used to make voice and video calls or send SMS and MMS messages.  

Mobile device management or multi-device management?
In the enterprise mobility market, a different kind of fixed mobile convergence is also underway: MDM may soon stand for multi-device management (rather than mobile device management) as IT departments look to keep tabs on employees' PCs, tablets and smartphones through a single dashboard. Talk of a post-PC era is premature. Despite the proliferation of bring your own device programmes, few employees are ditching their corporate PCs. Meanwhile, mainstream IT vendors are moving aggressively into the mobile sector: IBM said at the Congress it has made 10 mobile-related acquisitions in the past four years alone.  

Enterprises are increasingly likely to buy IT, mobile connectivity and fixed-line connectivity together.  Following its acquisition of fixed-line telco Cable & Wireless Worldwide, in July 2012, mobile operator Vodafone noted "it has become clear that there is strong customer demand [among enterprises] for combined products and services." 

Mobilising Wi-Fi
At another level, mobile networks and Wi-Fi networks (connected to fiber-optic cables) are becoming increasingly integrated. At the Congress, Telefónica showed "technology which enables smartphone and tablet users to move seamlessly between different wireless access technologies without losing coverage."

Seeking to fully integrate Wi-Fi with 3GPP-based mobile technologies, the Madrid-based telco said the "evolved Wi-Fi technology to be used in the deployment of cellular networks has moved to carrier grade, meaning that it implements the latest advances and functionalities and offers a performance similar to LTE, plus it allows roaming between operators and countries."

Similarly, China Mobile, which plans to lift its capital spending in 2013 by almost 50%, is pursuing a "four network strategy" - 2G, 3G, 4G and Wi-Fi (see slide below). The giant Chinese telco said, in its March financial results presentation, that it now runs 3.83 million Wi-Fi access points around the country and these carry half of its handset data traffic. It noted that an automatic authentication system has increased usage of these Wi-Fi hotspots.

A hybrid box of the future
In time, mobile and fixed networks are likely to work hand-in-glove, sharing the traffic load as appropriate. This is the vision behind what Deutsche Telekom claims will be "the most modern integrated network possible" in Germany. DT's annual report says: "We want to combine optical fiber and LTE in a hybrid box in the future, which will enable download rates of up to 200 Mbps and upload rates of up to 90 Mbps.... an innovative hybrid technology will bundle the transmission capacities of the fixed and mobile networks intelligently, allowing additive use to be made of the maximum available bandwidth."

These trends mean that in Europe, Japan, China, North America and other developed markets, it will soon be hard to draw a clear line around the mobile industry.  That will be a good thing. In an increasingly complex world, both enterprises and consumers cherish simplicity: They want services that will work across devices and networks, regardless of whether they are mobile, portable or hard-wired into the surrounding infrastructure. They shouldn't need to make a distinction between mobile and fixed.

Rather than simply deploying and managing SIM cards, forward-looking mobile operators and their partners are now looking at customers more holistically and deliver a package of connectivity and cloud-based services.

It has been a long time coming, but fixed mobile convergence may finally be here.

This post is sponsored by the Enterprise Mobile Hub and Blackberry

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