Mobile Business Part III: Working down new wireless roads

19 Oct 2004

The ability to communicate wirelessly is transforming the way that people do business and allows a level of flexibility that wasn’t even dreamt of a few years ago. Data cards with GPRS and now 3G communications capability mean that you can connect your PDA or laptop to the internet or data network from anywhere you can get mobile phone coverage.

The proliferation of public Wi-Fi hotspots are providing high-speed network connectivity in airports, railway stations, cafes and almost anywhere else that people will have a few minutes of downtime when they may want to work or check their email. The emerging WiMax standard promises to bring the same type of wireless connectivity into the regions with support for users who may be up to 30 miles from a base station.

Add to all this wireless connectivity, the availability of cheap broadband – both wired and wireless – and it is possible to have high-speed internet access from anywhere you happen to be. With a suitably equipped laptop you don’t even have to worry about which method you use to connect – your PC should be able to detect the carrier mechanism that will offer the fastest connection.

Telecoms carriers and equipment manufacturers have been quick to see the potential of this convergence of fixed and mobile access, which could provide them with a much needed boost in revenues. From their point of view, wireless access – combined with the emergence of voice-over internet protocol (VoIP), which sends voice traffic over data networks – opens up the possibilities of totally new revenue streams.

BT, the parent of Esat BT, has embraced the concept as part of its 21st century network, which will see customers in the UK transitioned from a traditional PSTN network to an internet protocol (IP) network that can deliver next generation converged services.

One of the first products to be delivered under this strategy is its Blue Phone, which is a phone that roams onto multiple networks so that a user can have a single number and single bill for all voice communications. It is basically a mobile phone with Bluetooth connectivity for connecting to network gateways. It can also channel calls using VoIP on a broadband connection when the user is at home or in the office, but it uses the standard mobile network when they leave their premises.

“The user has one directory, one number and one bill, thanks to our partnership with Vodafone on this,” says Matt Bross, chief technology officer with Esat BT. “Going forward, we will also add 3G intelligence to the fixed-line services. This is symptomatic of the traditional carrier space where the 100 year era of narrowband is giving way to broadband networks. The fundamental difference is we are moving from selling switched minutes and calls to delivering capabilities to our customers.”

According to Pat Dempsey, sales engineering manager with network equipment maker Nortel Networks, it also shares the vision of eliminating the boundaries between communication which it calls the extended enterprise.

At a recent product announcement it demonstrated the potential of mobility solutions based on IP networks, when a Nortel executive travelling on a Lufthansa plane from Frankfurt to New York made a live call from a soft phone client on her PDA to the launch event. “IP definitely underpins the idea of the extended enterprise but also the availability of ADSL at home and wireless hotspots in hotels and airports,” says Dempsey.

IP is the communications protocol that underpins the internet and allows voice and other communications to be sent as discreet packets, enabling networks to be used much more efficiently. It also enables your communications to be delivered to you wherever you happen to connect to the network. For example, you can have a single phone number that is routed to a soft phone on a PDA or laptop whenever you are connected to the network.

Building on this is Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), which will add multimedia capability to the mix. “SIP enables new services by bringing multimedia into the IP stream so you can have services such as instant messaging and video,” says Dempsey. “It’s great to be working at home or remotely but this makes it as ‘in person’ as possible.”

This convergence of communications is also being reflected in the services offered by mobile carriers. O2 has been particularly active in providing public Wi-Fi hotspots in addition to its support for mobile data over its GPRS network. “It shouldn’t matter what the bearer service is – the user just wants connectivity and his services,” says Orlagh Nevin (pictured), head of business services with O2 Ireland.

“The customer should have a choice – that means the devices should support multiple access methods and price plans should support it as well. That needs to converge as well so we are moving away from charging for minutes towards charging by the megabyte,” she says.

Although Vodafone has yet to get in on the Wi-Fi act, it will launch a combined 3G/GPRS/Wi-Fi data card early next year and will partner with other providers such as BT Openzone and The Cloud to offer Wi-Fi hotspots.

“The next version of our Mobile Connect Card will continue the bandwidth spectrum by adding Wi-Fi,” says Chris Handley, product manager for Vodafone’s business data products. “The new card will have the same user interface regardless of what you are connecting to and will automatically go to the network offering the highest available bandwidth.”

By John Collins