If you’re a regular reader of Enterprise VoIPPlanet.com, you’ve probably noticed our occasional F/MC Watch reports, which chronicle new technologies for integrating cellular telephony with voice over IP. If so, ‘M/MC Watch’ might have you scratching your head.
Well, there’s nothing like being different—or at least looking or sounding different—for getting a little attention. That’s perhaps part of the reason Silicon Valley startup DiVitas Networks has identified its recently released technology as a Mobile/Mobile Convergence platform.
“There is nothing fixed to be converged,” DiVitas CEO and founder Vivek Khuller pointed out to VoIPplanet.com in an exclusive interview. “What need to be converged are the emerging mobile networks—in the various flavors of Wi-Fi and WiMAX—and cellular.” And of course, he’s quite right: It’s getting the two kinds of mobile communications systems—wide-area (cellular) and local-area (WLAN)—to work on the same device that’s causing all the stir.
DiVitas, which launched its Mobile Convergence platform late in February, is different from most of the other cellular/WLAN solutions we’ve looked at—in several respects: It is enterprise-focused, meaning it is deployed within the enterprise network and controlled by the enterprise IT staff; it is carrier- and hardware-agnostic, meaning it will work with any carrier’s cellular network and with a wide variety of devices running a variety of operating systems (eventually); and it is architected from the get-go to integrate with enterprise applications other than voice.
According to Khuller, DiVitas was created to solve the problem of how you seamlessly connect all the myriads of completely independent mobile networks its founders observed springing into existence (think corporate Wi-Fi networks, municipal WLANs, home Wi-Fi networks). The company designed its Mobile Convergence solution, as Khuller puts it, “to provide seamless mobility among [a vast array of] mobile networks that are completely disparate and independent.”
On the mobile device end of things, the DiVitas Mobile Convergence Client gathers information about networks that are available in its current location—such as relative signal strengths and traffic conditions—relaying this back to the Mobile Convergence Appliance—a switching/routing/analysis device that decides to which available network to route call packets, dependent on changing conditions.
The signaling hurdle
A big challenge in getting independent networks to interoperate, according to Khuller, is the lack of an out-of-band signaling channel on an IP media connection, as there is with conventional telephony (e.g., the SS7 protocol standard promulgated by AT&T and Bell Labs in the 1970s).
“The way you solve the problem is through in-band signaling,” Khuller explained. “We have been able to overcome the issue about signaling—or the lack of signaling—by embedding signaling information within the package and then doing packet inspection on every packet we receive,” he said. “Once we inspect the packet, we route it to an appropriate network.”
The question of what constitutes an appropriate network is determined not only by physical conditions—signal strength and traffic load—but also, in part by policy. “Suppose, for example, you are at home, making a call over your Wi-Fi network, and you walk out of your house to your car, and begin to lose signal strength” Khuller theorized. “And suppose that the client detects both a cellular signal and a public Wi-Fi signal, both strong.”
“The appliance says ‘Okay, I think need to hand off this call to an alternative network, and corporate policy says “Use Wi-Fi as much as possible” (as opposed to cellular), so let me hand off to the public Wi-Fi network.’ ”
Many numbers, one device
A unique feature of the DiVitas’s Mobile Convergence platform, according to Khuller, is the ability to ring multiple phone numbers on a single device. In fact, he sees this as the crux of M/MC. “The one-number concept [touted by some competitors] is completely overblown,” he insisted. “Human beings play different roles in their lives—most basically their work life and their personal life—and most like to keep those lives separate.”
Mobile Convergence accomplishes this by allowing multiple DiVitas clients to coexist on the same phone. So a Chicago-based consultant on temporary assignment in Los Angeles, say, could have a Chicago number for communicating with the home office and an LA number associated with the project—as well as a home number for talking with family. When the LA assignment ends, s/he would just delete that client.
The data connection
While the cost savings achieved by reducing cellular calling is the first selling point most customers respond to, it’s not the most important aspect of DiVitas’s Mobile Convergence platform, Khuller feels. In addition to “mobilizing workers on the communication plane—which we can already do with cell phones,” Khuller said, “we need to be able to mobilize on the information plane.” Translation: data applications as part of the phone call.
The ability of the system to mobilize applications was on DiVitas drawing boards from inception, Khuller explained—based on wish-list input from CTOs in the planning phase. To accomplish this feat, “We need to have an open interface on the appliance, where it can talk to the [application] server on the back end. More importantly, the client needs to be flexible enough to show third party application information as part of an incoming call.”
The choice of what applications to mobilize, and what data are essential to present, is the province of the organization’s IT staff—or, perhaps a consultant partner.
“Providing that flexibility, both on the client and on the server, becomes very, very important in the true mobilization of applications in the enterprise,” Khuller said. “That is an area where we invested heavily in architecting our solution appropriately—which is a huge differentiator for us.”
Interestingly, the DiVitas solution is not ‘limited’ to integrating cellular and IP communications for workers on the road. The company has also done important work in implementing voice roaming across the components of a wireless LAN (Wi-Fi network), thus changing the communication equation for workers it calls ‘corridor warriors.’
“The majority of WLAN deployments that have taken place do not have voice roaming built in,” Khuller told VoIPplanet.com. “We fill in that gap for them. If we didn’t, it would be like saying to customers ‘I’m going to hand off your call seamlessly when you walk to the parking lot, but I’m going to drop it when you’re walking down the corridor.’ We recognized this issue up front as a company, and proactively partnered with leading WLAN manufacturers and made sure we could do A[ccess]P[oint]-to-AP and subnet-to-subnet roaming.”
How important is this? Beyond creating a more responsive workforce, it alters one of those facts of modern work life about which we tend to have mixed feelings: voicemail and returning phone calls. It’s in inefficient system, in DiVitas’s view. If the Mobile Convergence can save two voicemail/return call cycles a day, Khuller asserted—about five to six minutes—”you get a ‘soft’ return on investment that pays for the system in six months.”
And that’s on top of the ‘hard’ RoI: a minimum 50 percent reduction in cell phone bills, according to Khuller.