Extending the reach of the PBX to mobile handsets

Everyone has just one telephone number. When I call you, your mobile and desk phones may ring simultaneously, or the phone system may know where you are and direct the call there – whether you’re at home, in a hotel room or sitting in a coffee shop with a laptop running a voice-over-IP soft phone. Wherever you are, the call finds you, without my having to try several numbers – unless, of course, you don’t want to hear from me, in which case my call goes directly to your voice mail.

You, meanwhile, can dial a four-digit extension number to reach colleagues, whether you’re in your office, in the parking lot or several time zones away. You have access to all the features of the phone system, such as conference calling and the corporate directory. If a call reaches you through the cellular network and then in the middle of the call you walk into range of a wireless network – or vice versa – the call is handed off without missing a syllable.

That’s the dream.

The reality is quite different for most people. Though most of the technology to do all this exists, few organizations other than those that actually build it are using phone systems that do all this. Fixed-mobile convergence, an advanced form of which is the scenario described above, is in its infancy.

“We are getting there,” says Stephane Teral, principal analyst at Infonetics Research in San Jose, Calif., “We are just at the first step of this.”

But, says Jon Arnold, Toronto-based telecommunications consultant and president of J. Arnold & Associates, “the actual commitment to spending big bucks to go down this road has been limited.”

For a fair number of people, small pieces of fixed-mobile convergence are available today.

It’s not difficult to forward calls from an office phone to a cellphone. There are even services, such as Bell Canada’s JustOne and various voice-over-IP offerings, that will automatically pass an unanswered call to a cellphone or ring two lines simultaneously, but direct all unanswered calls to the same voice-mail system.

Voice over IP users can take their phones wherever there is a broadband Internet connection. Burlington, Ont.-based DependableIT, for instance, supplies some technicians and managers who spend a good deal of time on the road with IP soft phones running on laptop computers. Anywhere the employee has an Internet connection, the soft phone works like an extension on the company’s IP PBX, says Cheryl Lewis, director of customer service at DependableIT. Employees place internal calls by dialing extension numbers, and outbound calls through the company PBX without paying for cellular airtime.

pbx retains control of the call

But this only works where an Internet connection is available. For broader availability, an ordinary cellphone must behave like an office extension.

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada – the second-largest union representing federal government employees – installed an Avaya Corp. voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) phone system in its Ottawa head office in fall 2004, and has been testing a feature that can bridge calls to mobile phones if they aren’t answered at the office. If nobody answers the cellphone either, the call will go back to the office voicemail system, says Eric Ritchie, the union’s section head for informatics.

As PIPSC rolls this out to more employees this fall, it will allow employees who are out of the office to answer incoming calls just as if they were at their desks, Ritchie says. And when PIPSC moves into a new head office later this year, the capability will take the place of a paging system used to notify employees of incoming calls when they are away from their desks. “They’re just going to have to carry their cellphone with them if they want to be reached,” says Ritchie.

“We can transition a call to any device that we can ring,” says Tracy Fleming, national IP telephony practice leader at phone system manufacturer Avaya Canada Inc. “The only requirement is that it’s a directly dialable number.” This goes beyond simple call forwarding, Fleming notes, because the PBX retains control of the call. It can try an employee’s cellphone, and if there is no answer it can then transfer the call to someone else, who can even see who the phone system has already tried to reach.

Cisco Systems Inc.’s Mobile Connect, introduced last fall, can forward a call to any device – a cellphone is the obvious choice, says Brian Del Bello, director of product marketing for Cisco’s Unified Call Manager offerings. Screening rules can be set up to determine which calls get forwarded and which don’t.

NewStep Networks Inc. of Toronto offers fixed-mobile convergence attachments for PBXs from various manufacturers. Its FlexConnect service will transfer a call between an office phone and a cellphone by touching one button – a speed-dial button is usually used, explains Craig Gosselin, NewStep’s chief marketing officer. FlexConnect also provides a single voice mailbox for multiple phone numbers. NewStep’s Enterprise Mobility Solution allows a cellphone to act like an extension to a PBX and ring simultaneously with the landline phone back at the office.

NewStep has integrated its technology fully with Cisco’s phone systems and is working on Nortel and Avaya systems, with plans to support Siemens and Alcatel systems in the future, Gosselin says.

Personeta Inc. of Naperville, Ill. provides telecom carriers with platforms for building enhanced services. Mobile TeleSystems of Moscow has used Personeta’s TappS NSC application server and Cisco’s Service Exchange Framework to build a service that can direct calls to office and mobile phones simultaneously and give the mobile phones access to PBX features. Mark McIlvane, Personeta’s chief executive, says the service is a success and Personeta is talking to carriers in the U.S. and Canada about comparable offerings.

Another key element of this convergence dream is mobile phones that can use either the cellular network or Wi-Fi — either a corporate wireless local-area network or a wireless hotspot. These too exist today, but aren’t widely used. “The multi-radio support has been there in our phones for a long period of time,” says Tejas Rao, director of technology for Nokia Canada in Toronto. Nokia’s first combined cellular and Wi-Fi in the 9500 handset, launched in February 2004. Nokia hasn’t yet launched all of its dual-mode phone models in Canada, Rao says, but “you’re starting to see it all come together …. This is the year of trials and early success case studies.”

carriers concerned about wireless business

Teral is skeptical about dual-mode phones. British Telecom has an offering called Fusion that combines cellular and Wi-Fi access in a single handset, he notes, and “the (sales) numbers are not very exciting.” However, he says, “there is a strong demand for enterprises to actually link fixed lines and wireless.” With a new IT investment cycle beginning as equipment bought in the rush to deal with the Year 2000 issue reaches the end of its life span, he expects some businesses to move in this direction. However, he cautions, “I don’t see any revolution.”

A key roadblock to dual-mode services is mobile carriers’ concern for profits. Many cellular calls are made or received at the office, and customers could save substantially by moving those calls to their own wireless networks – but that money would come out of mobile carriers’ pockets.

“I was talking to the president of one of the bigger telcos,” Personeta’s McIlvane says, “and he said to me you know, Mark, if I didn’t have the profitability from my wireless division, I wouldn’t be profitable.” Carriers will not push services that hurt air-time revenues unless competition forces them to or they believe they can attract new customers.

Before fixed-mobile convergence can really blossom, some new technology standards need to take hold.

Today, a technology called Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) is a key to linking Wi-Fi networks and those using the GPRS cellular standard. It permits calls to be handed off between those networks. But UMA doesn’t work with CDMA cellular technology – still common in North America and used by Canada’s major incumbent carriers – and, says Phillip Marshall, vice-president of wireless and mobile technology at the Yankee Group, a Boston consulting firm, it “doesn’t allow you to ride the wave of standardization occurring around IP.”

In the longer term, Marshall says, fixed-mobile convergence will depend on native IP functionality and IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS), an emerging standard designed to allow access from any type of IP or cellular network. IMS uses the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), which is emerging as a key signaling protocol for multimedia communication sessions. “SIP seems to be the de facto standard that is being accepted now,” says Rao.

IMS and SIP will support more than simple voice connections, opening the door to multimedia, and that, Arnold says, is where things start getting interesting. Combining voice with instant messaging, streaming video and collaboration tools can create “almost a desktop-like experience on the mobile phone,” he says. “Then you’re adding value to the communication process.”

Like any technology advance, fixed-mobile convergence will bring its share of headaches for corporate IT departments and network administrators.

glorified call forwarding?

Mobile phones have not traditionally been under corporate control. Employees often buy their own cellphones and they are usually acquired through consumer channels, Marshall notes. Larger organizations with sizeable investments in mobile workforces may need to start providing mobile devices to their employees to make their fixed-mobile convergence plans work, Arnold suggests.

So should businesses pursue this fixed-mobile convergence dream? Maybe, but not too fast. In a May 2006 Yankee Group report, “Rationalizing Fixed-Mobile Convergence,” Marshall predicts more than 70 per cent of fixed-mobile convergence initiatives will fail. The main reason for those failures, he says, will be the lack of a sound business case. “There needs to be a reason for being a first mover as opposed to a fast follower,” he says. Possible reasons include cost savings if the business’s work force is highly mobile, or a great need for immediacy. But, says Marshall, “do you need to implement next-generation infrastructure for glorified call forwarding functionality? Probably not.”

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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