F/MC Watch: BridgePort Sticks it to Mobile Carriers

It’s taken a year—a long time in the tech world. Last February (2006), at the 3GSM Conference in Barcelona, BridgePort Networks and its two partners, Oberthur Card Systems and softphone vendor CounterPath Solutions, demonstrated a system for mobilizing voice over IP, using a SIM card, a softphone, and other software on a portable USB flash drive.

This year, BridgePort and its partners were back at 3GSM—”pretty much in sales mode,” according to senior vice president of marketing and business development, Sanjay Jhawar—announcing general availability of the MobileSTICK solution, or, as Jhawar puts it, “taking the solution to market at scale.”

Why the MobileSTICK? Most F/MC efforts to date have been centered around the dual-mode mobile—phones equipped to use Wi-Fi as a link to the IP network, along with normal cellular connection to the mobile operator’s network. That’s how BridgePort got into the game as well.

“We were very focused, for a long time, on the dual-mode phone and Wi-Fi and seamless handover,” Jhawar told VoIPplanet.com. In fact, the company had completed all of its product development, and established partnerships and channels to market for the dual-mode platform. “I think we were the leader from the technology completeness point of view,” Jhawar said, “But we’re still here, waiting for the phones to show up.”

Indeed, BridgePort, and all its competitors in the F/MC space are “gated,” as Jhawar put it, by the major handset manufacturers cautious development cycle for mainstream dual-mode phones and mobile operators not wanting to go to market with anything less than a fully finalized 3GPP standard.

MobileSTICK lets carriers get into the fixed/mobile market now, and at negligible cost (no subsidies for expensive devices, for example). “We still believe in the dual-mode phone market,” Jhawar explained, “but we feel it’s just going to take some time to emerge.”

The idea of putting VoIP software on a USB stick is not entirely new. Vonage has done it, as have some lower-profile providers. But including the virtual SIM card, which enables strong authentication and security, takes the basic concept into untraveled territory.

In addition to the virtual SIM card created by Oberthur, MobileSTICK carries a custom-tweaked copy of CounterPath’s eyeBeam softphone, along with all of the phone books, call logs, recent SMS and MMS messages, and everything associated with calling history—all stored in the flash memory on the stick. “So all of that moves around with you.” Jhawar pointed out. “When you move it from one PC to another, it really doesn’t leave anything behind, except maybe a registry entry,” he said.

The MobileSTICK system uses the platform BridgePort developed for the dual-mode phone solution, except that instead of one device (a complicated and expensive one with lots of potential deployment and support issues of its own), this solution involves two—each with its own SIM.

The trick, then, is to take two SIMs (more correctly, SIM identifiers — International Mobile Subscriber Identifiers or IMSIs) and associate them with a single phone number. “That association doesn’t occur in the phone, it occurs in the network, in a database called a Home Location Register (HLR),” Jhawar explained.

Without going into exhaustive detail, BridgePort’s technology makes that happen, “not just for voice, but for messages, for SMS, supplementary services, call waiting, voice mail and everything that goes with that,” Jhawar told VoIPplanet.com. And it can do so—with appropriate adaptation—on virtually any carrier network (a simple statement that masks a great deal of technical complexity).

“When I say it’s taken us a year to get ready to go to market, a lot of those types of things are the things we’ve been working on,” Jhawar mused. “At this point we have multiple partners that are ready to go to market at scale.” What does “at scale” mean?

“If someone really wanted to deploy a million subscribers of this, this summer, it would be feasible,” Jhawar asserted.

Getting the solution to market—and generating customer interest—is only part of the MobileSTICK story. Jhawar assured us that there is a great deal of customers interest, and that—aside from the attraction of its current availability for deployment—”we think the MobileSTICK proposition is unique in its own right and has some benefits all of its own that aren’t available even on the dual-mode phone solution.”

We’ll explore that unique proposition and the accompanying benefits in Part 2 of this article.

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