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May 2010 | Volume 13 / Number 5
Packet Voice Over Wireless

Smartphone Voice over Wi-Fi – Still Not Quite There

AT&T recently opened up its 3G data network to VoIP. Some people were excited about this, but it really isn’t such a great benefit. The 3G data connection is unreliable and prone to long latencies, which can make a phone call unpleasant. If you are going to talk on the cellular network you might as well use the connection designed for voice, unless your billing plan makes that punitive.

VoIP on the Wi-Fi connection is a different matter. Consider that you spend most of your time at home or at work, both of which places have high-quality Wi-Fi connections. Particularly at home, the Wi-Fi is usually lightly used, and even if four or five people use it for phone conversations simultaneously it won’t get overloaded. Using Wi-Fi for calls made at home and work brings a considerable reduction in billed minutes of use.

Going to voice over Wi-Fi when it’s convenient can bring benefits beyond savings. First, you can use a superior codec. Cellular calls always use a high compression codec, which is why they sound so horrible. Voice over Wi-Fi calls often use G.711, yielding about the same sound quality as a land-line call. Second, you can use the same SIP login on your cell phone as your desk phone, so they ring simultaneously and you don’t need to get yet another phone number. Third, your VoIP service provider is able to provide innovative services like presence.

It’s easy to talk about this stuff, but the reality is still lagging. All new smartphones have high performance, power-efficient Wi-Fi, but few do voice over Wi-Fi well. The iPhone can’t do background processing, so it’s impractical to use it to receive Wi-Fi calls. Nokia (News - Alert) phones that have VoIP built in are difficult to set up for VoIP and bad at associating with Wi-Fi access points automatically. Android still doesn’t have good APIs for media handling. But something has to come together soon. What we need is a smartphone that associates with Wi-Fi networks as easily as the iPhone (News - Alert), that has good physical acoustic design, a microphone and speaker capable of wideband performance, and adequate media and network APIs for developers. IT

Michael Stanford (News - Alert) has been an entrepreneur and strategist in VoIP for more than a decade. (Visit his blog at

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