Mobile standard gets Wi-Fi pick-me-up

UMA, the standard behind BT's imminent Bluephone, got a double boost from Alcatel and Nokia at the SuperComm exhibition in Atlanta.

Both of the phone giants are using the Wi-Fi version of UMA (Unlicensed Mobile Access) to let operators deliver phone calls to converged handsets that handle both Wi-Fi and cellular networks. UMA promoters believe this will be more successful than the Bluetooth version that BT is due to launch.

"UMA is so much more than BT and Bluephone," said Steve Shaw, director of marketing at Kineto, the software company that is leading the marketing of UMA. Future UMA services will be more useful, he said, because converged handsets will let them use Wi-Fi instead of Bluetooth. They will also support the SIP (session initiation protocol) that UMA has lacked so far -- though in a form that still ties the user to the mobile network provider.

UMA's SIP support will make Wi-Fi palatable to operators, by giving users access to Internet applications, but only through the operators' networks, said Shaw: "UMA creates a tunnel back to whatever applications are running on the mobile carrier's core network." This limits the potential of converged phones to offer cheap calls and services using the wider Internet, he admitted, but: "If you are a mobile operator and you are subsidizing phones, you are probably not in a hurry to figure out how to open them up."

"Until UMA came along, operators had no way to capitalize on Wi-Fi," said Shaw. "It turns Wi-Fi into an opportunity for them. Because UMA lowers the cost of providing data services, operators will charge less for them," he promised, suggesting that operators would let users have fast data services more from hotspots -- at a greater cost but more easy to use, than other Internet services over raw Wi-Fi. "It might be cool to have Skype, but it's not something all of us are going to take on," he said.

Alcatel promises to add UMA to the Spatial multi-standard controller (softswitch), which it sells to mobile operators, promising them the ability to extend mobile coverage within the offices of UMA customers, and offer faster data services.

The move will require Alcatel to re-jig its mobile architecture, said Shaw. UMA calls enter the network without passing through a cellular base station, so some base station functions have to migrate to the central controller. "That's not straightforward to do," Shaw said.

Nokia is also upgrading its MSC mobile network controllers to support UMA, and has announced a trial with Saunalahti, a Finnish operator that started as an MVNO (operating using bandwidth on other providers' networks) and now has 10 percent of the Finnish market. This trial announcement is a surprise, as it will require converged handsets, which are not yet available. However, Nokia itself is one of the vendors expected to launch such a handset shortly.

A third UMA announcement came from security gateway vendor, NetRake, which promises UMA support so its customers can run VOIP applications through its appliances.

Shaw believes that, with UMA to make sure that Wi-Fi access is only offered under their strict control, operators will be reassured, and Wi-Fi/cell handsets will appear, perhaps as soon as this summer. This may, in the end be good news for BT, which has a Wi-Fi version of Bluephone planned.

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