Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Wednesday 15/06/2005To the City, where BT is launching Bluephone - or, as we must learn to call it, BT Fusion. This is a mobile phone that switches to using your broadband when you're at home.

Wednesday 15/06/2005

To the City, where BT is launching Bluephone - or, as we must learn to call it, BT Fusion. This is a mobile phone that switches to using your broadband when you're at home. As we sit in the plush lecture theatre in BT HQ - the slides still didn't work properly - there is plenty of time to note that 0800 calls are charged at mobile rates from home, that the CEO of BT Retail doesn't recommend you use this instead of a fixed line, that you haven't got the choice anyway because nobody other than BT Broadband wants to touch it and with BT Broadband you must rent a fixed line, and that a tenner a month is a lot to pay for.. er... no, lost me there.

The most interesting part of the launch is the standard around which BT Fusion is based - UMA, for Unlicensed Mobile Access - and which diverts your voice calls to broadband when the phone is in range. UMA is clever because it isn't voice over IP - at least, not in the way that term is normally understood. Instead, it forms a pipe between the handset and the mobile network provider that carries voice in GSM format. You can't link two UMA devices together peer-to-peer: the call has to go through the mobile network fabric. In effect, the Bluetooth or Wi-Fi access point becomes just another cell, and the broadband network part of the mobile operator's infrastructure.

This has great advantages for the operator. Much of the expensive - and surprisingly fragile - IT that makes a mobile network run, such as routing, billing and management, will work untouched just fine with the new system. The customers even subsidise the system by paying for a section of the infrastructure and the cost of the data transfer. Also, by striking deals with ISPs, the mobile networks can turn every Wi-Fi hotspot in the country or abroad into cells.

The story's more mixed for the customer. On the plus side, most of the services they are used to accessing through their handset will remain the same, as operationally there's little difference between mobile and local operation. However, as well as paying for their own broadband connection, the customers are still restricted to a particular mobile operator and many of the benefits of voice over IP cannot be realised. In particular, this means that free or very low cost calls are no more likely on this system than they are on the mobile networks as a whole: control of everything resides firmly with the existing operators. And many of the factors that drive the mobile phone industry - ease of switching operators and frequent upgrades of the phones themselves - do not apply to systems like BT Fusion.

All of this makes UMA an uncomfortable fit for the enterprise. While there are strong arguments for converged mobile and fixed services - one point of billing and support, one point of access to staff, a focal point for unified messaging - it makes no sense for all calls, including staff to staff inside a building, to go through a mobile network

But if BT changes things - as it says it will, with the next generation of Fusion perhaps not being UMA at all - then it's going to have an even harder time convincing the mobile industry to play. Sign up and lose revenue! BT's last effort at this sort of thing, tbe Onephone("BT Onephone is a world first. It's the only cordless phone you can use from your home telephone line and the cellular network.") failed miserably, and with that you could even choose your mobile and fixed line supplier.

Daft, I call it.