Some well-known names are lining up behind one company's technology to let consumers and enterprises put away their cell phones -- and mobile call charges -- when they get to their homes and offices.
IBM, VeriSign and Airespace want to foster roaming between cell phone systems and IP (Internet Protocol) networks so calls to a user's cell phone number can come to a wired or wireless VOIP (voice over IP) phone instead. And with dual-mode cell/Wi-Fi phones that are starting to emerge, a subscriber could just carry one phone and simply switch modes when in range of a Wi-Fi network.
On Wednesday the three companies became the first members of an alliance program that mobile VOIP vendor BridgePort Networks formed to help carriers quickly deploy such services. The companies gathered at this week's Global Convergence Summit in Chicago, a show initiated by BridgePort. The alliance, called MobileIGNITE (Mobile Integrated Go-to-Market Network IP Telephony Experience), will conduct interoperability testing and aim to help deliver end-to-end systems to carriers, said Mike Mulica, president and chief executive officer of BridgePort.
"It's work that is ongoing in both our labs and their labs, and in conjunction with several carriers," Mulica said.
Roaming between cell and VOIP networks can save enterprises and consumers money by freeing them from using mobile minutes when they have access to a wired or wireless LAN in their homes or offices, Mulica said. The technology also lets them avoid poor cell network coverage at home or in the office, which could also pay off with better performance for data applications on smart phones. Mobile operators can benefit by combining a VOIP service with traditional cell phone plans, so they do not lose revenue from calls that subscribers otherwise would make on a separate VOIP provider's network, he said. The dual service also can make a customer more loyal, he added.
BridgePort has its technology in trials at Bell Canada International and also is talking to at least one of the major U.S. mobile operators, according to Mulica.
Many mobile operators are interested in combined mobile and fixed-line services, including cellular-VOIP combinations, according to Peter Jarich, an analyst at Current Analysis, in Sterling, Virginia. There is more than one vendor and more than one approach to doing it, Jarich said, and BridgePort's newly announced partnerships could help raise its profile among mobile operators and the main suppliers of their network gear, such as Nortel Networks and Lucent Technologies.
"I don't think it's a home run. I think it's getting them on base," Jarich said. Rivals include Kineto Wireless, which uses an industry specification called UMA (Unlicensed Mobile Access) and LongBoard. BridgePort's technology is designed for the core of the network, whereas Kineto's is to be added in the access portion of the network, near where the end user connects. Some carriers don't believe the cores of their networks are ready to handle this kind of functionality, he said.
"For BridgePort to get this out there, it requires that operators begin to think more about deploying applications from the IP core," Jarich said.
BridgePort's technology is based on server software that has two personalities, according to Mulica. One part can work with a cell phone network and the other part works with an IP network. The software can translate a cell phone's identification information on the carrier network into a SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) address, which is used on the IP network, Mulica said.
In the MobileIGNITE alliance, IBM contributes its eServer Blade Center for data centers and its eServer BladeCenter T for carrier central offices, which can be used as platforms for BridgePort's software. VeriSign has an infrastructure on which it provides translation between carrier and IP networks as a service to carriers. Airespace offers wireless LAN technology that supports voice calls, according to BridgePort.
Airespace's involvement adds heft to the alliance because the startup agreed earlier this month to be acquired by IP network giant Cisco Systems. Cisco sees strong demand for this type of capability and is looking at all the different approaches to providing it, company officials said Wednesday, but they were not able to discuss Airespace's role in detail.
"Cisco is very excited about being able to provide the infrastructure to help support that type of seamless mobility," said Ann Sun, Cisco's senior manager of marketing for wireless and mobility. Airespace did not respond to a request for comment.
Despite carriers' current excitement about mobile-to-VOIP roaming, it's too early to say what impact it will have, Current Analysis's Jarich said. Between improving indoor coverage, grabbing more of their customers' calls and keeping subscribers loyal, they are exploring a variety of benefits, he said.
"They see there's a huge amount of opportunity from this," Jarich said. "I don't think they know exactly what the opportunity is."