(Editor’s note: Upon our request, Keith Higgins writes about why there’s all this excitement about fixed-mobile convergence. By the way, check out the related post over at Gigaom, especially this comment — about how this technology may change our lives.)

Did you get one yet? No, I’m not talking about the “Q” • every VC has one of those. I’m talking about a dual-mode (WiFi and GSM) phone. I got mine a few weeks ago • and it rocks. Good luck trying to get one though. These are tougher to get (and cooler) than a Gmail account was in the early 2000s. Nope these phones haven’t even made it to Ebay yet.

These new phones work with operator’s Fixed-Mobile Convergence (FMC) services. FMC, in simplest terms, is when mobile operators deploy new infrastructure that integrates WiFi access into their cellular network, and offer new phones containing 2 radios (WiFi and GSM).

The phone
I got a Samsung P200 phone. It’s sleek, slides open for the keypad, has a great display and menu system. Basically it feels, sounds and works just like a regular mobile phone. Other than dual-signal indicators (on the Samsung, red when phone is in GSM, blue when in WiFi), the “mode” of the phone is inconspicuous. These new dual-mode phones will start shipping in volume as soon as next month from other leading manufacturers such as Motorola and Nokia. They are attractive in form, low in price, and allow us to grab a broadband connection whenever possible. They also should offer us a much lower cost per minute when used in WiFi mode.
The “service”
OK, my company works in the fixed-mobile convergence infrastructure space. So assembling an FMC network at our office was pretty simple. For the rest of the world, commercial dual-mode services are available today in Europe by leading telecommunications operators including BT and Telecom Italia. For those of us here in North America, it may take a little longer. Rumors abound that T-Mobile US will be launching an FMC service soon. But certainly over the coming months more services will be available, and until then, you’re welcome to come by the Stoke office and check it out.
The “big deal”
Short term it’s simple. Less complexity, better indoor coverage, lower cost. I liked my old cellular phone. I liked it better than my desk phone. It had my address book, it was portable, had pictures of my kids, played cool ringtones, and I always had it with me. With a dual mode phone I have all that AND single number where people can reach me, a single voice mail, and oh yeah, my phone actually works well in my office. (my old phone, sadly, did not.) Commercial offerings should also save us few bucks as most people predict operators will offer a very low (or zero) cost per minute when the phone is connected to WiFi, and a bucket of regular cellular minutes. With the average percentage of mobile use within WiFi range at around 50%, this cost savings could be meaningful.
Long term it’s simple too. Subscribers can access multimedia content over cheap, secure, pervasive standards-based WiFi in our homes, at our offices, and at the local Starbucks hotspot • and leap to cellular when there is no WiFi available (like when we get back into our car with our latte). This means we are finally getting close to a “connected” experience • like TV or PC with a broadband connection • with mobile devices. Enabling the “3rd screen” in our lives, as some have described it.
Bottom line
FMC is compelling to operators, content providers and subscribers alike. For operators, it’s a competitive necessity to compete with Internet-based VoIP providers. FMC • and a fatter pipe to the phone • is also a powerful tool for content distribution and mobility. Chris DeWolfe, CEO of MySpace, was quoted as saying “Advancements in mobile technology will have the biggest effect on individual empowerment. This will gradually occur as mobile networks in the U.S. improve and handset functionality broadens.” Dual-mode services will offer us a step-function improvement on the mobile experience. Yes, FMC will be here soon and everyone will have it. But for now, being in the small club of dual-mode phone owners is pretty cool.
Keith Higgins is vice president of marketing at Stoke, a leading provider of fixed-mobile convergence infrastructure.