You've got a wireless local area network and you've got voice over Internet protocol phones (VoIP). Why not add wireless VoIP phones? For some companies, it's a move that makes sense.
Wireless VoIP phone systems from Holtsville, N.Y.-based Symbol Technologies Inc. and Boulder, Colo.-based SpectraLink Corp. are starting to work their way into hospitals, retail stores and schools.
Richard Watson, director of telephony product marketing for Symbol, said these phones keep employees connected wherever they may be in a building.
"[With a mobile VoIP phone,] you don't have to put [up] another network for voice," he said. "You can add two-way text messaging, and can tie it into Outlook. You can widen the spectrum of how you communicate."
Wireless VoIP phones work just like regular VoIP phones, except they run on a wireless local area network (wLAN) 802.11b system. So as long as users are in range of a wireless node, they can make and receive calls and use some of the same data functions they would have on their desktop VoIP phones.
Ben Guderian, director of marketing for SpectraLink, said businesses with mobile employees that stay on-site -- like hospitals and "big-box" retail stores -- have found a lot of value in these systems.
Limited capacity a drawback
The biggest drawback to the system is that the number of callers that can make calls at any given time is limited, said Mike Disabato, an analyst with the Midvale, Utah-based research firm Burton Group. Each access point in a wireless system cannot handle any more than five, or perhaps 10 calls. "It lacks the call handling capability to be used in a knowledge worker environment," Disabato said.
As a result, it is limited right now to vertical markets such as health care, manufacturing and retail, said Jason Smolek, an enterprise network analyst with International Data Corp., the Framingham, Mass.-based research firm.
The New Brunswick school district in New Jersey has recently deployed wireless voice over Internet protocol phones in many of its 13 buildings. Brian Auker, director of technology for the school district, said he decided to install a VoIP system as a way of saving money and getting the school out of long-term contracts with the phone company for T1 lines.
He was drawn to the data functions available with a VoIP system. "You can get access to student data on the phone," he said. "Someone in the office could look up a student phone number to call his parents."
Many of the district's older buildings are simply not designed for the kind of wiring that their information systems require and are slated to be torn down in the near future. In those buildings and in many others, Auker installed wireless LANs.
With a combination of a wireless infrastructure and an IP-based phone system, Auker said, wireless IP phones became a natural part of the mix. Right now, security guards and custodians have the wireless phones. Auker said the phones provide a much more reliable system in case of an emergency. As an example, he cited an instance in which a person fainted outside the school before the new system was in place. Because no one was in the school office when a guard radioed for help, it took longer to get a call to a 911 operator. Now, with the wLAN phone, a guard in a similar situation can connect with 911 directly.
But that is just the beginning of the deployment. Soon every teacher will have a wireless phone. At the elementary school level, where teachers move from room to room and out onto the playground with classes, that can be very useful, Auker said.
In a situation like the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colo., it could be dangerous for teachers to have to reach a fixed line phone on a classroom wall. This way, they can call for help no matter where they are, Auker said. Soon, the system will also cover the athletic fields, so coaches can have phones as well.
While there is value in the wireless VoIP phones, Auker said the system cannot be a replacement for hard-wire VoIP phones. The reliability is not there yet and the wireless phones on the market do not have the same broad functionality as desktop phones.
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