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Call of the Wi-Fi

Heard the latest about systems that combine voice calls with wireless LANs? They're within your reach.

What do Cingular Wireless, Verizon and the rest of them have that you don't? At the moment, a federally protected business selling narrowband communications to a lot of people.

Most of us grew up thinking that's the only way to build a communications infrastructure-collectively. Under that paradigm, the feds micromanage every aspect of network operation. We patch together two or three different phone services and zigzag through the "no you can't" and "that costs extra" calling rules that Congress and the FCC "force" on telecom companies (wink, wink) for our "protection."

That was yesterday. Today, you can be the first in your high-rise to set up a combined phone service-augmenting or even competing with established networks. Sound expensive? Not really. You won't need billion-dollar bandwidth auctions or platoons of Washington lawyers and lobbyists. Your network will operate in the regulation-free portion of the radio spectrum and cost about as much as the average office PBX. You may already have the backbone for it-an 802.11 wireless LAN (WLAN) or a voice over IP (VoIP) phone/data system supporting WLAN nodes.

Once you discover you can't write enough e-mail or reports to fill it up, you'll start looking for something else to do with the extra bandwidth, says Joe Laszlo, senior analyst at Jupitermedia. The answer is to turn your WLAN into a VoWLAN, carrying voice and video.

Why bother? Well, how's cell phone coverage inside your building? When's the last time you took your office desk set to a meeting down the hall? How much does it cost to bring land-line service to a new employee? The answers are: lousy, never and $100, if you're lucky. Taking SpectraLink's VoWLAN equipment as an example, $15 would let a new employee talk while walking from the center of your office to the edge of your VoWLAN, without being disconnected.

Granted, cellular companies broadcast farther than you. They need it; you don't. If 802.11's 300-foot range isn't enough, inexpensive software, a more powerful antenna or 802.11b-plus adapters will add an extra 150 to 1,500 feet to your network for very little money.

Note that three years into the 802.11 market, a half-dozen companies are already poking holes in its broadcast boundaries-and it didn't take an act of Congress to get them to innovate. Who knows when cellular companies will offer emergency calls or let you keep your phone number when changing carriers?

Here's a more significant statistic: Even the slowest 802.11 flavor delivers more bandwidth than a land line or the 3G networks the cellular companies hope to build someday. You can already give employees something the big boys can't: high-quality, mobile voice and video services with no strings attached.

No Phone Is an Island
VoWLANs are brand-spanking-new, so there are issues to iron out-but quality of service (QoS) is no longer one of them. Near-zero latency is routinely achieved by today's VoIP systems by giving priority to voice calls. How's the QoS on your cell phone or land line?

The hard part is connecting your VoWLAN to established networks. If you don't already own an IP-capable phone system, that involves a hardware as well as software gateway. Not a big deal. Many companies are already walking while talking, thanks to solutions from VoWLAN pioneers SpectraLink and Symbol Technologies. These are mostly health-care, retail and manufacturing operations that paid early-adopter premiums for custom systems, says
Brian Strachman, a senior analyst at Scottsdale, Arizona-based In-Stat/MDR. Lower-priced, standards-based solutions are on the way, by way of Microsoft's Windows Mobile 2003 platform.

They might look something like Toshiba's new Mobility Communications System whose laptop-size servers add mobile voice to your WLAN for the price of an office PBX. Phone handsets can be anything, from the traditional desk set to a portable phone or any Wi-Fi-enabled PC, laptop or PDA with Toshiba's small-phone client. Toshiba's e series Pocket PCs and Palm's Tungsten C have Wi-Fi radios; so does ViewSonic's V1100 tablet, which includes a Bluetooth headset.

Battery power can be problematic when Wi-Fi radios are added to multipurpose devices, but less so for new single-purpose Wi-Fi phones. Maybe the coolest Wi-Fi phone is a clip-on badge from Vocera Communications-its voice-recognition software lets you answer or dial hands-free. The question is: What won't have a Wi-Fi radio in the future?

Voice over Wi-Fi will develop on two tracks-private and public. Analysts agree that, in companies, even legacy PBXes will be IP-capable. Also, voice calls will be available at public Wi-Fi hot spots, which will swell to 25 million by 2007, says Keith Waryas, a senior analyst at IDC in Framingham, Massachusetts. But will you be able to sell phone service to others? That's trickier. There are roaming, billing and other business issues, says Waryas, and don't expect the telecom giants to just stand by and watch.

That's really a story for another day. At least, there's no law against it-well, not yet, anyway.

Step By Step

Here are some of the more significant advances for VoWLAN development:

  • January 2003: Vocera Communications VoWLAN badge phones (www.vocera.com)
  • April 2003: Symbol Technologies' NetVision phone system (www.symbol.com)

Mike Hogan is Entrepreneur's technology editor. Write to him at mhogan@entrepreneur.com.

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This article was originally published in the September 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Call of the Wi-Fi.

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