After all the hype, this is the year when convergence was finally born. The world over, consumers are beginning to enjoy multiple applications on single devices. They are beginning to switch from one network to another and, in the future, these networks will become so seamlessly integrated so that to the end user, they will become invisible. But if this move from network-centricity to customer-centricity is to succeed, the market will have to commit to three principles: standards-based interoperability, security and simplicity.
Given that communications is all about breaking down barriers, it is ironic that the industry has been guilty of creating them. Until recently, wired and wireless devices were exclusively dependent on separate networks: phones were tied to cellular networks, laptops to WiFi and PDAs to Bluetooth.
Even as little as five years ago, wireless operators demonstrated their exclusive commitment to cellular networks with their substantial 3G investments. Yet before 3G has had time to fully establish itself, alternative technologies such as WiFi and WiMAX have changed the rules of the game. And the silos that once divided the landscape are now being challenged by the disruptive and uniting forces of IP, UMA (Universal Mobile Access) and other technologies.
Or rather, perhaps, it is the consumer who is forcing operators and manufacturers to dance to a different tune. It is the consumer's demand for mobile multimedia--at the best price, with the best connection, and from one vendor--that has encouraged industry leaders to break with tradition and invest in multiple networks. The network operators benefit too. The integration of technologies permits the most cost effective delivery of multimedia services.
Talking, emailing, sharing pictures, gaming and downloading music or video all require access devices that can support multiple networks and applications, as well as networks that interoperate like never before.
This last six months has seen new devices from all key handset manufacturers that incorporate numerous radios and antennae to support multiple networks. The combination of EDGE, GPRS, 3G, Bluetooth and WiFi is becoming commonplace. Yet, for all their inherent complexity, these products achieve the goals of interoperability, security and simplicity.
On the operator side, however, it is not immediately clear that all service providers do intend to go beyond their natural comfort zone. Virtually all cellular operators have invested in WiFi. But not all have announced plans for providing a mixed and, eventually, a full portfolio of converged fixed, mobile and broadband services.
Perhaps developments in WiFi will encourage them to see the opportunities. WiFi has set examples in many ways. It has continued to increase data rates, and soon the industry will ratify the 802.11n standard to increase bandwidth by more than three times. What's more, WiFi is moving beyond ubiquity in the laptop market and breaking into new realms.
WiFi cellular convergence has taken a foothold among key operators this year. There are now more than 15 cell phones that have been WiFi CERTIFIED®, in the first major step in communications convergence. Standards-based interoperability is crucial, and without it, consumers cannot be sure they are buying devices that can go from hotspots to home networks to the office environment. So while it is understandable that the sheer speed of change will occasionally result in pre-certified products reaching the market, the long term aim for all OEMs must be to preserve end user interests by certifying products and adhering to industry standards.
The WiFi industry is also breaking into the consumer electronics market, recognizing that the home of the very near future will support the sharing and exchange of multimedia content between devices. Why download music via your laptop when you can download directly from the web to a wireless media player? Why offload your full camera memory to your PC when you can upload it direct to your personal web space though a wireless connection?
While strong application of standards will ensure WiFi the interoperability that will underpin its success in these breakthrough markets, security and simplicity must also be in place. To enhance security, for instance, the new WPA2TM (WiFi Protected Access) certification is now mandatory for all WiFi CERTIFIED products. Meanwhile the more straightforward and simple set-up that will be supported by the Simple Configuration program later this year helps consumers set up home WiFi networks with the security enabled.
Seamless converged connectivity can't happen without collaboration across industry groups. The Wi-Fi Alliance's partnerships with the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA), Fixed mobile Convergence Alliance (FMCA) and CTIA are central to the entire industry's commitment to interoperability, security and simplicity.
These commitments and partnerships will enable ISPs, operators and OEMs to offer simple and seamless services across multiple networks. That means that the industry must learn to be less concerned with protecting their traditional networks and more focused on how those networks work together. And the proof of our success will be when consumers can enjoy the benefits of being always best connected, everywhere they go.
Frank Hanzlik is managing director of the Wi-Fi Alliance.