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Publisher's Outlook
March 2003

Rich Tehrani

The Rise Of Enterprise WiFi Telephony


Contrary to popular belief, cell phones are not the ideal mobile telephony tools. Sure they come in handy when we travel, but in the office they just plain stink. There are many reasons, among which is the high cost of cell airtime coupled with the limited control a cell phone gives the management of any organization.

Not only do most telecom managers have to contend with allowing users to choose cell phone carriers that have the best coverage according to their usage/travel patterns, there are many problems with allowing your workers to give out their cell phone numbers. If an employee uses their personal phone for business, giving out that number to customers, and then leaves on bad terms, how do you recover from the fact that your best customers could be calling your newly disgruntled employee?

Many companies have an auto-attendant with a well thought out message or a message-on-hold recording or both. These technologies help deliver a consistent message to callers into our organizations. It is not easy to get cell phones to work with our in-house systems. Even when you do, users can run up big bills using their cell-phone mostly in the office.

The solution to these problems is simply piggybacking voice over todays WiFi networks. It should be noted that WiFi telephony allows users to become more productive -- answering calls they want to answer and missing virtually no calls (unless they choose to). Best of all, once telephony is packetized, it is ready to be terminated by an ITSP who will drastically reduce your costs. In some situations, you might even eliminate the ITSP altogether.

I recently had a chance to interview Ben Guderian, Director of Marketing at SpectraLink regarding that companys take on the future of WiFi telephony. I hope his responses get the juices flowing as you begin to explore the exciting world of WiFi telephony for your own organization!

RT: At the last Internet Telephony Conference and EXPO in California, WiFi telephony was all the rage. Do you see this technology solving real business applications or is WiFi telephony useful in select niches?

BG: The business application for WiFi telephony is already well understood. Everyone is familiar with wireless voice devices from using cordless phones at home and cellular phones outside the home. But most people give up that mobility when they go to work because there hasnt been a cost-effective wireless voice solution for the enterprise. Thats where WiFi telephony makes sense, and technologies like wireless LAN and voice over IP are bringing the cost of implementation down. But there are still markets that can easily justify the investment today because of the impact on mobility, responsiveness, productivity, or customer service. Thats why we see a lot of activity in healthcare, retail, manufacturing, and education markets.

RT: What unique challenges does QoS in a wireless environment present for you?

BG: The biggest challenge we had in delivering a WiFi telephony solution was to come up with a QoS approach that the access point manufacturers would be willing to implement while the 802.11e standard was still being crafted. We developed SpectraLink Voice Priority, or SVP, as a way to bring WiFi voice applications to market quickly and help establish voice as a viable solution for wireless LANs. Today all of the major providers of WiFi access points to the enterprise market support SVP, which shows their commitment to WiFi telephony as well.

RT: What are common problems inherent to WiFi telephony running over equipment that doesnt necessarily support VoIP with QoS or other packet prioritization systems?

BG: Wireless LAN access points work like Ethernet hubs -- they have to share their limited bandwidth between multiple wireless client devices. Without some kind of QoS mechanism, voice packets can get queued up behind long data packets and be delayed long enough to impact voice quality. So while you might be able to get by without QoS in a lab environment or on a lightly used network, users wont put up with dropouts and lost syllables in real-world applications.

RT: How many devices can you support with your technology and how much does it cost?

BG: Theres really no physical limit, but there are practical limitations based on the network topology. For example, a single access point can support about a dozen simultaneous calls if all the users are close enough to maintain an 11 Mb/s data rate. The percentage of bandwidth required increases as the data rate drops, so youll only get about six calls if everyone is running at 2 Mb/s. So in many cases the limiting factor is the number of access points deployed throughout the facility. Our NetLink Wireless Telephones have a list price of $679.

RT: What do we lose by using WiFi telephony? There must be some drawbacks.

BG: Not really. The only drawback is that youre putting more client devices onto the WiFi network, which may require additional access points to support the additional traffic load. In some cases you may lose some telephone functionality, but were investing heavily in developing the VoIP protocols that deliver the same features and functions that are available in a wired desk set.

RT: What are the economics of providing a service based on your technology when faced with competition from 1x networks? How will service providers using your equipment compete with the likes of Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile? Please detail the value proposition.

BG: The wireless carriers are doing a good job of serving our communication needs outside the home or office. But they dont have a good solution for inside the enterprise. WiFi networks are much more cost effective for providing good coverage throughout a facility, and there are no airtime or usage charges. We also provide deep integration with the corporate telephone switch, so the wireless telephone has the same features and dialing plan.

RT: Do you envision cell phones eventually running exclusively on WiFi telephony networks? On a combination of WiFi and cellular (PCS, CDMA, GSM, and the like)?

BG: We have tens of thousands of handsets already running exclusively on WiFi networks in lots of different enterprise environments. But cellular technologies have a big advantage in terms of range that make them difficult to compete with for rural coverage and use in vehicles. So its likely that well see devices that support cellular for use on the road and WiFi for use in the office.

RT: I understand youve announced some healthcare deployments. Please give us some details.

BG: Healthcare has always been a primary market for mobile solutions. In the past year weve had some pretty large deployments of NetLink Wireless Telephones in hospitals. One example is USCs University Hospital in Los Angeles. They have nearly 300 handsets being used by nurses, doctors, and administrative staff. They are using access points that can be upgraded to support both 802.11b and 802.11a technologies, so they can be prepared for future wireless applications that are more bandwidth intensive, such as imaging. And they chose to install a Cisco CallManager for an end-to-end voice over IP solution instead of using VoIP gateways with their existing PBX. The end users dont really care about the underlying technologies -- theyre just glad to have a high-quality wireless telephony solution.

RT: How can using WiFi telephony make companies more productive and/or more profitable?

 BG: Productivity gains come from doing business in real time, without the delays caused by voice mail or trying to hunt down a key decision maker. Were finding that a lot of companies today are trying to do more with less, so they are making investments in technologies that improve communication and responsiveness. In industries where uptime is directly correlated to profitability, the ability to reach technicians and plant managers is well worth the investment. And being more responsive to customers is critical for any enterprise that is trying to build or retain market share.

RT: What advantages do you have over some of your competitors? How will the competitive landscape evolve?

BG: Our biggest advantage is that we are focused on meeting the needs of enterprise users. Enterprise wireless is not like consumer wireless. You have to provide a higher level of voice quality and functionality than whats expected of cellular or cordless phones. In order to do that, weve had to make significant investments in developing the various protocols used by enterprise telephone systems, and developing client devices that can stand up to use in some pretty hostile environments. In the past this market has been too small to get the attention of the big wireless players, but that will probably change as we see growth in the WiFi and VoIP markets. Our challenge is to stay ahead by knowing our customers needs and meeting them with high-quality, reliable products.

RT: What are some of the biggest inroads WiFi will make this year? Give us a timeline of how you see enterprises picking up this technology.

BG: Getting the standards for QoS and security ratified and implemented will be the most significant events for the WiFi telephony market. A lot of enterprises are waiting for the wireless security issues to be resolved before rolling out any kind of WiFi applications, and even though SVP is a viable QoS solution today, having a standard will help stimulate deployment of wireless telephones. So were hopeful that the standards will be done this year and well see enterprise adoption take off.

RT: Are there any unique security issues with voice over WiFi networks?

BG: Some of the wireless security solutions available today dont take into account the requirements of voice traffic. For example, if you require re-authentication every time you roam to a different access point, a wireless telephone will have dead air for as long as that authentication takes -- which could be several seconds. Voice users are much more mobile and change access points frequently, so clearly this would be unacceptable to most users. Fortunately there are more sophisticated solutions such as access control devices and VLANs that allow different levels of security to be used for different types of applications.


WiFi telephony continues to evolve and excite telecom and MIS managers everywhere. If you have a study worth sharing about WiFi telephony, please drop me a line at rtehrani@tmcnet.com so we may share it with the rest of the Internet Telephony magazine community of readers.

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