Telcos assess demand for converged phones

Two firms are researching options with customers

Two New Zealand telcos are assessing customer demand for converged services with one possibly trialling the new technology already.

Potential customers in Wellington have been contacted by market research companies working on behalf of two different unnamed telcos to discuss whether they would buy a service that allowed their cellphones to operate as landlines when they were at home.

Converged service has long been the goal of carriers and telco vendors fighting to increase customer spending on telecommunications. BT recently launched a converged service in the UK under the BT Fusion brand.

One survey respondent told Computerworld he'd been asked if he would buy a service that offered a cellphone that was billed as a landline when at home and also offered wireless internet access. "I said I would not because I don't like wireless technology," the respondent says.

Questions were asked about price points, different billing models and so on.

"I got the impression it wasn't Telecom or TelstraClear asking the questions, but I'm not sure why," he says.

Another respondent was invited to a focus group meeting but declined, as he had already been approached to take part in a live trial of the technology for a different company.

TelstraClear spokesman Mathew Bolland says the telco won't comment on its involvement in any such trial. However, rumours about TelstraClear's impending announcement regarding its own cellular ambitions remain, following confirmation from new chief executive Allan Freeth that he is considering all options and that a decision is forthcoming. Freeth told a TUANZ conference in Wellington that he wanted to approach the mobile market from a different perspective.

"It won't be conventional mobile," Freeth said, but declined to elaborate further.

Telecom has been looking into the area of converged services, says spokesman John Goulter, but he could not comment directly on market research.

Vodafone declined to comment whether it has commissioned research. Vodafone UK is the mobile partner company working with BT to offer BT Fusion.

What is a converged service?

Imagine being able to walk into your home while talking on the cellphone and have the call automatically transfer to your landline. Imagine being able to keep all your phone numbers in your cellphone and have access to them at home, but be charged landline rates.

This is the promise of converged mobile and fixed line communications. After years of trying to push the service, vendors like Ericsson and Alcatel are now discovering network operators are ready to deliver on the promise. BT Fusion offers customers a wireless hub that connects up to six mobile handsets to the landline service. When users arrive at home, their cellphones recognise the hub and calls are charged accordingly.

BT's hub is also used to connect up to 20 computing devices within the home, potentially setting BT up as a provider of wireless home networking.

Interestingly, the BT Fusion service operates using Bluetooth rather than wi-fi. While the hub BT sells is capable of wi-fi, the company uses Bluetooth for its security and for its low power consumption. A wi-fi version is expected in the near future, however.

BT also plans to offer a business user model, presumably with capacity for more than just a handful of phones.

But the service is not without its critics. Users have pointed out that the number of cellphones capable of using the service is limited and that if users are already talking on the cellphone when they enter their home zone, the call may be switched to the landline number but the billing continues as if it were a cellphone call.

Some analysts have described BT's service as shifting the backhaul from the cellphone network to the landline network, with little to offer customers beyond that.

The service is currently being trialled in the UK with a full service expected to be launched in September.

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