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Wifi Telephony
October 2004


Here Come The WiFi Telephony Devices

BY Ben Guderian

The convergence of wireless voice and data in the enterprise has spawned a host of applications to help us maximize and benefit from mobility in the workplace. With wireless data we’ve grown accustomed to laptop computers, tablet PCs, and PDAs, and similarly as WiFi telephony sweeps through the enterprise, various new devices have emerged.

Likewise, innovative manufacturers have responded with devices that vary in design and capability. These various devices are great for mixing up the competitive market, but it is important to distinguish the features and benefits of each wireless device — making some better suited for specific industries or users. Companies considering WiFi telephony devices should evaluate the level of activity, privacy, and day-to-day use employees need to make their jobs more efficient. WiFi telephony allows for a variety of applications on a converged network to reach the hands of employees via these wireless devices — something important to consider when planning future wireless device uses.

Today, the industry has pitted products such as WiFi telephones, voice badges, cell phones, dual-mode phones, and smart phones against one another. The truth is different devices are appropriate for different uses. Let’s take a look at the various devices on the market today and the benefits they offer employees in an array of industries.

Increasing Market Demand
Today companies looking to mobilize their employees in a variety of industries have the benefit of standardization, namely WiFi, which allows companies to have a mix of devices on the same wireless network. A company does not have to settle on one device nor are they restricted in their future selections because of existing devices on their networks. In the past, providing employees with mobility was limited to road warriors, typically sales teams, which comprise approximately 10 percent of a company’s workforce. But even employees that spend the majority of their time in the workplace — be it an office, hospital, manufacturing plant, school, or retail store — should be able to break free from their desks or workstations while having full access to voice communications. Businesses across industries are recognizing the importance of heightened levels of productivity and efficiency in providing employees with stronger communications tools. Thus, we see an increasing demand for wireless devices in the workplace.

Hoping to improve workplace communications, businesses in the past resorted to providing employees with cellular telephones. This proved a great solution for companies with an outside sales force, but for internal communications it resulted in an incongruent communication system that prevented employees from having a single voicemail box, accessing PBX features, or sharing a common dialing plan. Excessive airtime costs became an ongoing expense separate from the cost of buying and replacing the actual cell phones, and consistent coverage and voice quality inside the facility were often unsatisfactory.

Many in the industry have rallied behind the idea of dual-mode telephones — cellular telephones that operate on both public and WiFi networks. Ideally, users on a call outside a building on a public network could maintain the call inside an enterprise, with the call switching to the enterprise WiFi network — seamless to the user. Dual-mode capabilities have caused much fervor in the industry, and rightfully so, because providing employees with one telephone for office use and outside use proves extremely beneficial to executives and road warriors. Dual-mode, however, may not prove especially beneficial to a business work force that does not travel outside the workplace. Employees in enterprises, hospitals, schools, and manufacturing plants often share WiFi handsets from shift to shift, saving money on purchasing an individual telephone for each employee. In these cases, employers do not want the wireless handsets leaving the workplace premises.

The growing consumer market’s affection toward smart phones is spreading into the business market, with smart phones displacing PDAs. Smart phones are regarded as multifunction cell phones that typically include PDA-like features such as calendars and address books, plus digital camera capabilities as well as media software that can display photos or play music and movie clips. Smart phones are proving successful among companies with a mobile sales force. Employees are able to maintain voice communications and can access client information while on the go. Similar to cell phones, however, smart phones incur heavy airtime usage charges — something not viable for companies that do not deem it critical to provide an entire workforce with full access.

Durability issues also should be considered in selecting a wireless device. Most smart phones and PDAs, for instance, are not designed to withstand the frequent bumps and drops that might occur with some enterprise applications. Battery life and charging capabilities also dictate the usability for a wireless device, including the applications running on the devices and the average length of daily use.

Voice badges are another example of wireless devices that are proving useful for specific industries, but lack the capabilities to fully replace traditional telephones. While voice badges have been hailed by the media for their innovative portability and space-age appeal, they leave little room for private conversations and do not support many common telephone features. While hands-free communication is attractive for some applications, speech recognition may not be feasible in noisy environments and in situations requiring private conversations.

WiFi-based telephones that run on a company’s WiFi network also are a consideration for companies that want to provide their employees with workplace voice mobility, while still retaining traditional phone features. WiFi-based telephones utilize the same voice communications network a company has in place.

While interoperability capabilities vary, the optimal WiFi-based phone should interoperate with a company’s existing PBX and a variety of access point vendors to offer customers an array of options when building their Wi-Fi network. These handsets not only mirror the conveniences of traditional desktop telephones, they also offer push-to-talk capabilities as well as battery management solutions for multi-shift environments. The handsets are durable and are very much part of the wireless network, providing IT with manageable devices.

Meeting Challenges Head-On
In evaluating the various wireless devices, specific workplace factors dictate which device features and capabilities best fulfill enterprise requirements. Healthcare policies and regulatory issues dictate the way in which healthcare professionals communicate patient information. HIPAA regulations stipulate that healthcare communications must take place privately, protected from third-party eavesdropping. Therefore, various hands-free voice devices such as two-way radios, voice badges, and intercoms do not satisfy HIPAA requirements for patient privacy.

Power levels are another important consideration for companies using equipment that could be sensitive to interference. Healthcare employees and visitors, for instance, cannot use cellular telephones in hospitals because their high power levels can interfere with patient care equipment. Similarly, power plants must comply with federal regulations on pre-approved frequencies for wireless device use.

Another important factor wireless voice customers need to consider is how well the new wireless voice system integrates with existing infrastructure. Many businesses have made a significant investment in their existing telecommunications systems. Assuredly, they will be seeking a system that makes the most use of their existing telecommunications equipment, such as their PBX. Compatibility and integration with wired and wireless networks is another important consideration, since market demand has given rise to a variety of access point types and brands with varying coverage and security capabilities. Choosing a wireless voice device that is compatible with a variety of infrastructure vendors will give a business more flexibility to have a system that provides a return on their network investment as well as meets their voice communication needs.

Customers shopping for the perfect wireless voice device also should consider capabilities for future network growth. As more companies add voice to their WiFi networks, a converged network will provide employees with stronger capabilities on their wireless voice devices.

The wireless workplace will continue to inspire device manufacturers to advance wireless voice devices to meet industry demands. The good news for companies taking steps toward converged networks is that there is a mix of wireless devices from which to choose. WiFi handsets, voice badges, cell phones, dual-mode phones, and smart phones all come in appealing shapes and sizes with all sorts of bells and whistles. Moving beyond the appealing shapes and colors, companies are left with the opportunity to choose the one that best suits their business needs. IT

Ben Guderian is director of marketing at SpectraLink Corp. For more information, please visit the company online at www.spectralink.com.

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