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Wireless-N To Usher in Union of Wi-Fi, Cellular

The rollout of business-class 802.11n wireless networks could be the catalyst that moves fixed-mobile convergence from hype to happening.

VoIP Wi-Fi

The buzz around fixed-mobile convergence (FMC) has been strong, as many customers can see the benefits of unifying enterprise and cellular calling on a single device that seamlessly switches between the two technologies. That means, for example, that a call initiated on the cellular network can transfer to the Wi-Fi network without interruption once a user is in range. At the same time, users also gain access to all of their enterprise calling features, directories and data applications on their mobile phones.

Still, few solution providers are seeing that hype turn into sales today.

"We're seeing some of it, but there's not a whole lot of traction yet," said Jim Kavanaugh, CEO of World Wide Technology, a St. Louis solution provider that partners with Cisco Systems.

Many solution providers and industry observers agree that the FMC market, while promising, is still immature.

"It is in the very early-adopter stage. People want to talk about it, and I know that it is on our roadmap, because there [is a need] for reliable solutions," said Rohit Mehra, product line director for enterprise wireless solutions at 3Com, Marlborough, Mass. "The 12 to 24 month horizon looks a little more realistic for broader adoption," Mehra said.

Indeed, less than 2 percent of enterprises in the United States and Canada have deployed FMC solutions, according to recent research from Yankee Group.

One technology expected to provide some giddyup to the nascent space is the 802.11n standard for high-speed wireless networking. Enterprise-class products based on the draft of the standard are just beginning to hit the market, ahead of ratification of the standard by the IEEE, which is expected in September 2008.

NEXT: Do you like pizza?In general, 802.11n wireless networking promises faster speeds and farther range, two attributes that would benefit Voice-over-WLAN rollouts, a first step toward FMC. Faster wireless networks would also improve performance of enterprise applications which, when integrated with voice, would drive productivity gains for customers, solution providers said.

"[Wireless-N] will make this happen quickly," said Michael Carrane, president of The Listen Company, a solution provider in Chicago that is already finding business opportunities in the FMC space.

Another key factor in FMC rollouts is the arrival of dual-mode handsets that can support both Wi-Fi and cellular calling. Some manufacturers are already rolling out such devices. Nokia last month, for example, unveiled the E51 dual-mode business handset, which works with GSM and Wi-Fi networks. It is expected to be available later this year for an unsubsidized price of $485.

Players like Carrane argue that it's not too early to move into FMC. The Listen Company has teamed with DiVitas Networks, a two-year-old Mountain View, Calif.-based company that offers an appliance that provides enterprise FMC independently of wireless carriers.

"In the medical community especially we've seen a number of early adopters that want to eat this up," Carrane said. "Doctors already have a number of devices -- pagers, BlackBerries, cell phones. Now a lot of hospitals want VoIP capabilities, so you're adding another device to the mix." It's a problem DiVitas can help solve, he said.

The Listen Company currently has four customers running the DiVitas appliance, with several others in the pipeline. It is pairing the appliance with VoIP products from ShoreTel, Carrane said.

While there are cost-savings to be had, the productivity gains provided by FMC are what will make an irresistible business case for many customers, said Vivek Khuller, CEO and founder of DiVitas.

"Customers can carry their desk phone functionality with them wherever they go, so they are much more reachable," Khuller said. "It's like asking, 'Who likes pizza?' 'Do you need a mobile phone?' What you're almost universally going to hear is 'yes.'"

One of the best things channel partners can do to prepare for the coming demand for FMC solutions is to get their hands dirty with Voice-over-WLAN, said 3Com's Mehra.

"We've been talking about it for several years, but there are customers in key verticals where Voice-over-WLAN in principal is a big driver," Mehra said. "I think just doing plain old Voice-over-WiFi and getting it right is a good step toward FMC."

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