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Potential spark emerges for wireless VoIP

A new vendor partnership that would allow users to roam between wireless LANs and cellular networks could prove to be the spark that's needed to draw enterprise customers to wireless VoIP.

A recent announcement on wireless roaming from Motorola Inc., Proxim Corp. and Avaya Inc. is likely to give the wireless LAN market a boost, but businesses are going to have to wait before they can enjoy the benefits.

The three companies announced that they were partnering to develop technologies that would allow users to roam between wireless LANs and cellular networks while maintaining a seamless connection, adequate security and appropriate billing. Though wireless Web access and e-mail have received a lot of attention, these companies are focusing on roaming for voice, not data.

The concept of being able to roam from a wireless LAN to a high-speed cell network and back without losing connectivity, interrupting a session or facing billing snafus is what Peter Bernstein, president of the Ramsey, N.J., consulting firm Infonautics Consulting Inc., calls the Holy Grail of wireless. "It's the vision that everyone has been looking for," he said. "Everywhere, all-the-time connectivity over any device."

It is a compelling vision. Users would be able to use their devices on whatever network provided them the best connection. They could make inexpensive Internet telephony calls when in range of their company's wireless LAN, and cell calls when away from the office. But the trouble with achieving this vision has been and continues to be the market. Despite the growth in wireless LAN shipments, wireless data hasn't taken off the way analysts over the years have predicted because consumers are not willing to pay and businesses are deploying cautiously. And voice over wireless LAN remains a small market.

SpectraLink Corp., based in Boulder, Colo., is the market leader in the wireless voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) market, with an estimated 70% market share. In the first thee quarters of 2002, the company shipped 10,000 handsets, said Ben Guderian, SpectraLink's marketing director. This is not a huge market.

Guderian said that the wireless VoIP market today is centered primarily on a few verticals: health care, education and industrial businesses. While he is excited to see big players like Motorola and Avaya paying attention to wireless VoIP, he said that, in his experience, the verticals drawn to wireless VoIP often do not want users leaving the premises with phones. Hospitals, for example, are 24-hour-a-day businesses, and their phones are used on site at all times. A phone's ability to roam between wireless LANs and cell networks is simply not that compelling for the wireless VoIP market as it exists today, he said.

But others believe that the wireless VoIP market is going to change. If users can roam between networks, businesses may see more value in wireless VoIP, said Abner Germanow, a wireless networking research manager with the Framingham, Mass., research firm International Data Corp. A growing amount of cell phone use is taking place at the office. With wireless VoIP, businesses could cut back their cell phone bills, since those call could be routed through the Internet protocol private branch exchange (IP PBX) with little extra investment, said Germanow.

Bernstein said that companies will also be able to stop worrying about providing adequate cell coverage in buildings and corporate campuses. The expense and headache of working with wireless carriers to guarantee cell coverage will disappear, he said.

With wireless LANs becoming more common and interoperability issues largely worked out, the time is right for wireless VoIP to take off, said Dave Bonaker, vice president of wireless product management for Avaya, the Basking Ridge, N.J., communication network company.

But voice roaming between these two kinds of networks is no simple task, he admits. The companies need to work out systems that allow handoffs between unrelated networks at different frequencies quickly enough to avoid any degradation of voice quality.

Security and quality of service standards for wireless local area networks pose a hurdle as well, Bonaker said. While the group is committed to working with standards, he said, it may also need to "enhance" standards to achieve the quality and security it needs.

Battery life has also been an issue for mobile devices running wireless LAN radios. SpectraLink's phones have about two hours of talk time for a battery charge. Bonaker said that Motorola has made big strides in terms of battery life for its devices.

The three companies plan to begin testing roaming systems during the second half of this year, but businesses should not expect to use these systems soon. "Will this be the disruptive technology of 2003?" Bernstein asked. "No, but the seed will have been planted."


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