The Trend Skeptic: Convergence Will Benefit Everyone

On the surface, fixed-mobile convergence (FMC) looks like a no-brainer for carriers. Cellular networks are expensive to build and spectrum is scarce. Look at the FCC’s 700 MHz auction, and you’ll get a sense of how scarce and expensive the wireless spectrum is. The auction has already been bid up to $18.8 billion—nearly double what was expected and it’s not over yet.

FMC is supposed to provide some relief. Rather than building out more expensive cellular networks, carriers can roll out dual-mode phones that can switch off to cheap WiFi networks. This should be a win-win for carriers and users: carriers get cheaper networks while consumers get broader coverage.

This should also be a boon for large organizations, many of which already have stable, reliable, secure WLANs. According to a new ABI Research study, the FMC market will expand to 250 million users by 2012.

Not everyone believes this will directly benefit the enterprise, though.

“Carriers talk a good enterprise story, but their actions and instincts are aimed at the consumer,” said David Hattey, former CEO of FirstHand, which was acquired by CounterPath in early February. Hattey was also previously the VP and GM of enterprise voice solutions at 3Com.

“I liken it to driving in the U.K. I can teach myself to drive on other side of road, but I avoid it because all of my instincts are backwards,” he said.

There are a few problems with the rosy FMC predictions. First, enterprise WLANs are the exception. Many of the public networks you could get shuffled off to have iffy backhaul connections, lax security and outdated WiFi standards. Others won’t admit you unless you’re a member of that network. Roaming agreements could be worked out, but they haven’t been yet.

There are other problems, as well. Handset makers haven’t figured out how to make mobile batteries work well with WiFi. Most of us are used to day-long talk times. When connected to WiFi, that’ll drop to a couple of hours. The result is that users will often refuse the hand-off. They pay for those cellular minutes, and they’ll darn well use them unless they have a poor cellular signal and have no other choice.

The Hidden Issue of Ownership

From the enterprise’s perspective, there’s another problem: control. IT’s goal is to control and manage end devices. With cellular handsets, that’s not a viable option.

We all own our phones. We personalize them with ring tones. We play games on them. We use them as cheap cameras. We check MySpace or Facebook. If we have a souped-up handset like an iPhone, we listen to music and watch videos. Moreover, carriers heavily subsidize them.

How does that fit in with the mobile enterprise? It doesn’t. In fact, it runs counter to it. Even if the enterprise offers phones, how many of us will abandon our personal phones? What happens when that sales rep leaves the company? If the primary point of contact is the rep’s personal mobile phone number, the sales rep has a tighter control on that customer relationship than the organization does.