The idea of integrating wired and wireless services, which surfaced on the CEO and CTO panels at Cable-Tec Expo, isn’t going away. This summer’s launch of the Fixed Mobile Convergence Alliance (FMCA) is one point in the trend line. The FMCA was building off momentum generated in May with the announcement that FMCA founding member BT Group (British Telecom’s parent company) would work together with Vodafone UK to offer converged fixed-mobile services. At that time, BT also launched Project Bluephone, enabling a handset to link seamlessly between a BT wireless access point and a partner’s cellular network. The project’s aim is to give customers the best available connection (speed, quality and cost) wherever they are. Watch Rogers Dismissing the FMCA as an overseas, telco-exclusive initiative is a mistake. For one, Rogers Wireless Inc. is another founding member. (The others are Brasil Telecom, Korea Telecom, NTT Com and Swisscom.) Moreover, Toronto-based Rogers Communications, majority owner of Rogers Wireless, is uniquely positioned to exploit this trend from a cable perspective. "We have both the cable company that serves 3 million households-passed and 2.3 million customers, and a wireless company that serves 4 million customers on a GSM network," Alexander Brock, Rogers Communications vice president of business development and FMCA vice chair, says. Brock says more than a dozen others have approached the FMCA. Any North American cable operators? "Yes, and that’s as far as I’ll go," he adds. Nokia is seen as an early mover on the dual-mode handset front, but it’s not alone. "You’ve got the entire industry, Motorola, Samsung, Siemens. They’re all going down this same path," Brock says. Motorola, for instance, fueled interest in Wi-Fi (802.11x)-enhanced mobile technology this summer with its CN620 WLAN/GSM (wireless local area network/global system for mobile communications) handset, part of its broader "enterprise seamless mobility solution." "People’s connections don’t end at a doorway," Ed Zander, Motorola chairman and CEO said in a statement at the company’s analyst conference. "They need smooth transitions from home to car to office and everywhere in between." MVNOs, antennae and backoffice Roughly speaking, a cable operator without its own wireless network can approach this issue in two ways. It can strike a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) deal with a third party. Or it can build an "overlay" network. As for overlays, the options are limited. Dropping a cell tower in someone’s backyard is a nonstarter. But some vendors are talking about giving cable operators the option of populating their plants with strand-mounted, omni-directional antennae that could do the same thing. "As long as (such a device) talks IP and has the correct air link, in terms of the local access, be it Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, then the potential exists to haul the traffic over IP rather than having to send it to the macro (wireless) network," Brock says. Which version of Wi-Fi (a, b, g?) is one nontrivial issue facing the wireless/wireline handoffs. Then there’s the back office. On the one hand, it is simply the classic settlement issue that billing systems have been handling since the breakup of AT&T 20 years ago. Yet complications arise. The delivery of 50 to 60 new services a year (e.g., "American Idol" voting), many of which are trending toward the on-demand category, requires the corresponding operations support system (OSS) architecture to be increasingly flexible and policy-driven, says Tim Spencer, president and COO of Sigma Systems. On the bright side, standards are emerging. Spencer points to the Open Mobile Alliance, which recently released specifications on the exposure, discovery and consumption of mobile applications using Web services technologies. He says many of these specs derive from other sources, including the Liberty Alliance, OASIS, Parlay Group, 3GPP (Third-Generation Partnership Project), the World Wide Web Consortium and the Web Services Interoperability Organization. —Jonathan Tombes Video gamers are a highly demanding group. But they appear willing to make things worthwhile for broadband providers that afford them the best possible experience. It’s a bigger and more diverse group than many people assume. The Entertainment Software Association says that half of all Americans age six and older play computer and video games. Some 43 percent of game players say they play games online for one or more hours per week. This number is up 6 percent from 2003 and 12 percent from 2002. Almost four in every ten players are women. The cable industry is aligning its high-speed data portfolio accordingly. In late July, Time Warner Cable announced Road Runner Premium, an option aimed at game players and other intense users. The service increases downstream/upstream capacity from 3 Mbps/384 kbps to 6 Mbps/512 kbps. Comcast is taking its 4 Mbps/384 kbps option nationwide this month and already offers two gaming venues. Comcast Arcade, which the company says has hundreds of thousands of users, is designed for casual gamers. Games On Demand—which costs $14.95 per month—is a more "immersive" experience for serious players. The site offers gaming reviews, previews, news and other associated features. The company is now an exclusive distributor of Electronic Arts Fantasy Football. Intense gamers are not the easiest market to corral. "One of the things gamers value is up-to-date content," says Jen MacLean, Comcast’s director of games, sports and entertainment. "It needs to be from reputable partners—companies that gamers trust. This market is very, very sensitive to being talked down to or the feeling that they are not being respected." Gaming—in which split-second delays can translate directly into customer dissatisfaction—is an acid test for the condition of cable plants, especially in the tricky upstream. "Given comparable data rates and a lack of upstream impairments, there is no reason why game performance on cable shouldn’t be equivalent to DSL," says Ron Hranac, Cisco Systems technical leader and Communications Technology’s senior technology editor. "Naturally, if the data rates are different, one could expect different performance," he adds. "As well, if transmission impairments exist, data will be retransmitted until it finally does get through, which might contribute to a perceived performance difference." There are additional ways to serve this market. Comcast scans users’ computers to ensure that they are able to support the games and can flag the need for applications such as DirectX—an application programming interface (API) for creating and managing graphic images in Windows. —Carl Weinshenk

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