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Turning up the volume on wireless VoIP

Alcatel SA and Nortel Networks Ltd. both announced recently that they will launch wireless voice over IP products. And at the CTIA Wireless 2004 conference, voice over Wi-Fi received quite a bit of attention.

To learn more about this increasingly important technology, caught up with Brett Galloway, CEO of Airespace Inc., the San Jose, Calif.-based vendor that provides wireless switches and access points to both Alcatel and Nortel.

How does a small company like Airespace compete against big players like Cisco?
Our solution is attractive to larger companies that want to compete against Cisco. We already work with Alcatel, Nortel and NEC [Corp.], which all have significant voice systems businesses. How is Wi-Fi likely to change in the near to midterm?
We are on the front end of a large wave. There are significant opportunities to deliver additional services, such as location. There are opportunities to deliver more management services for voice over wireless LAN. And there will be more focus on the RF side of wireless. There are security and performance challenges to consider in the RF portion of the equation. Most enterprise IT shops don't understand RF. There will also be a continuing focus on security and manageability.

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Was voice adoption key to your business plan? In 2001, when the company was formed, it seems like that would have been a bit of a leap of faith.
The vision was a converged LAN backbone with multiple services. We wanted to create a quality, scalable wireless network. In the context of that vision, voice is a service that is important. It is not just about voice over wireless LANs, it is about producing a wireless system that can accommodate multiple applications, including voice. Does voice over Wi-Fi place different technological requirements on the Wi-Fi network?
There are several challenges. One is coverage. You must provide seamless coverage. You then have the problem of overlapping [coverage] cells, which challenges traditional wireless LAN gear. We have developed access points that dynamically adapt to real-world conditions to maintain coverage. Additionally, traditional access points have very poor hand-off times between access points -- generally a half a second or more of dead time. That is very long for voice. We offer cross-subnet mobility that maintains a seamless connection. In addition, we recently announced the ability to integrate a user's location into our network, so that, in case of emergency, a user can be located when making a 911 call. What are the business benefits of voice over Wi-Fi?
One driver is reducing the load on cell phones. The other is that, when an employee uses a cell phone, he usually also has a desk phone. That means there are two voicemail boxes and two phone numbers [for each employee]. It's inefficient, and it's that much more for the employee to manage. Is this something that businesses are asking for, or something that you or your partners are pushing as an additional benefit of a wireless LAN?
For businesses that already have a wireless LAN, running voice over it is a natural extension of what they are doing. Over the last few years, it has had significant uptake in hospitals. It makes sense in hospitals to leverage their existing Wi-Fi networks for voice. But as Wi-Fi transitions from a vertical technology to a more horizontal network infrastructure, [other] enterprises will begin deploying it as well.
Brett Galloway
Brett Galloway
You are providing technology to Alcatel and Nortel for their voice over Wi-Fi offerings. How important is voice over Wi-Fi today?
Voice over Wi-Fi is a compelling application in its own right. The reasons are clear. If you look at the home market, you won't find a single phone cord anywhere. People want their personal communications to be untethered. But, inside of the corporation, all voice communication is tethered. Because of that, businesses are finding that as much as half of cell phone use is taking place on company property. That is expensive. Also, cell phones are not synchronized with corporate phone systems.

The other driver is that more businesses have a wireless system installed. Initially, it was installed for data applications, but now they are beginning to add voice to those systems.

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