Fixed-mobile convergence saves firms costly mobile phone charges

Despite a small adoption rate, experts say fixed-mobile convergence (FMC) shows real promise in helping to reduce the cost and frustration associated with mobile calling.

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With millions of dollars of transactions conducted via cell phone, voicemail is "a real productivity killer" for Anthony Marano Co. (AMC), according to Chris Nowak, the produce distributor's chief technology officer. When a call comes in from a grower with a palette of oranges to unload, or a supermarket needing several crates of bananas in a hurry, the salesperson had better pick up -- or lose the sale to a competitor.

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But salespeople's jobs require them to roam around AMC's huge concrete and steel building, where cellular service -- and customers -- couldn't reach them. "We were doing a lot of paging to find people," Nowak said.

Chicago-based AMC solved the problem with Agito Networks Inc.'s RoamAnywhere, a fixed-mobile convergence (FMC) platform that deploys cellular and Wi-Fi-enabled voice communications on a single mobile device. The two complementary modes of communication ensure that salespeople receive their phone calls, whether they're talking to a customer in the produce cooler, standing just outside on the shipping dock, or driving off to a lunch meeting, Nowak said.

FMC shows promise of being the next big thing in unified communications, industry sources agree. The underlying concept is to integrate wireless mobile devices into a company's wired IP telephony infrastructure, said Michele Pelino, a senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. Users on the road would then have seamless access to both wireless and wired services and applications on a single handheld device.

Businesses can realize significant cost and productivity advantages by tying mobile users into IP telephony applications like unified messaging and four-digit dialing. Users can avoid costly overseas cell phone charges by dialing out through a private branch exchange (PBX) and taking advantage of corporate international calling plans.

Incoming calls to the PBX can be routed simultaneously to both desk phones and mobile devices. Users can also pick up their corporate voicemail and email on their mobile devices. Indeed, employees who spend most of their time on the road could dispense with desk phones altogether, saving their firms a bundle on equipment and maintenance costs, noted Jeanette Hudler, director of marketing communications at Tango Networks Inc. In a recent survey, customers of the Richardson, Texas-based vendor reported that 5% to 15% of their employees met this criterion, she added.

Despite its promise, FMC's current installed base is quite small. A recent study by The Nemertes Research Group Inc. found that about 10% of enterprises are in the process of deploying the technology, according to Mike Jude, a Nemertes research analyst. "But a fairly large percentage of respondents said they were looking into potential ROI." FMC will become more attractive, he added, when the technology has matured.

Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., is less sanguine, predicting that by 2010, less than 10% of midsized and large enterprises will support dual-mode cellular Wi-Fi capabilities.

This isn't all that surprising. FMC remains a fragmented industry of mostly small vendors, with major network service providers on the sidelines, testing the waters and looking for partners, according to Phil Redman, a research vice president at Gartner. As a result, early implementers must build their own FMC platforms. Given the number of products and services involved, that's no small task, particularly for midmarket companies, Redman noted.

We were doing a lot of paging to find people.
Chris Nowak
chief technology officerAnthony Marano Co.
Indeed, it took AMC four years and two false tries to build a successful dual-mode FMC infrastructure, Nowak said.

Dual-mode platforms, a subcategory of FMC products, merge Wi-Fi and cellular voice services onto a single mobile device.

Dual-mode FMC products like Agito's RoamAnywhere and DiVitas Networks Inc.'s unified mobile communications also tie mobile phones into the corporate telephony infrastructure. At AMC, for example, salespeople can take advantage of the PBX connection to transfer calls if "a customer wants to speak to a pear specialist or a grape specialist," Nowak said.

Dual-mode FMC is pretty much a no-brainer for health care and academic organizations (and produce distributors), whose users spend a lot of time on their mobile phones while roaming around a building or campus. By enabling users to make calls over Wi-Fi, such organizations can cut up to 80% off their mobile phone bills, according to Agito co-founder Pejman Roshan.

However, dual-mode FMC does tend to be more expensive than regular FMC, particularly for companies that have yet to install IP telephony or a wireless LAN. AMC had to buy a Session Initiation Protocol gateway server to get its Avaya Inc. Definity PBX to talk to the RoamAnywhere Mobility Router, Nowak said. And he spent $100,000 on a wireless LAN from Meru Networks Inc.

He said he has no doubt, however, that the paybacks are worth the initial cost and hassle. AMC's salespeople are definitely getting less voicemail. More importantly, business has increased while the number of salespeople has remained constant. "Agito's RoamAnywhere is definitely part of the reason," Nowak said.

Elisabeth Horwitt is a contributing writer based in Waban, Mass. Write to her at editor@searchcio-midmarket.com.


This was first published in October 2008

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