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November 2009 | Volume 12 / Number 11
Next Wave Redux

Municipal Wi-Fi Telephony Poised for Improvement

Municipal Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi telephony are each set for dramatic improvements as new Wi-Fi technology gets deployed. Where they overlap, the effect will be profound.

It’s commonly believed most muni-wireless systems went bust, ostensibly because there was no business model and the technology didn’t work. While there were some highly visible failures, metro-Wi-Fi systems are successfully deployed in a variety of cities, towns and neighborhoods. Brookline and Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass.; Minneapolis, Minn.; Riverside, Calif.; Toronto, Ontario; and Ypsilanti, Mich. are examples.

What’s more, a recent study by Novarum of systems in Minneapolis and Toronto showed municipal Wi-Fi coverage and broadband data rates matched or exceeded that of the cellular operators. Municipal Wi-Fi can work! And this is without 802.11n technology.

IEEE (News - Alert) 802.11n is a newly completed Wi-Fi standard. Pre-standard commercial products have been shipping for several years, but now the flood gates are open. Tests on early 11n equipment show significant performance gains, both indoors and outdoors. What’s more, there are performance gains, even when only one end has 11n technology.

For example, with earlier Wi-Fi clients in my living room I could barely detect (1-bar signal strength) two Wi-Fi signals from a nearby school. Now I can see 12 different Wi-Fi signals from that school, all with usable signal strength. More professional measurements, by Novarum and others, report significant performance gains using 802.11n technology outdoors – 2x throughput when connecting to older Wi-Fi systems and 3x when connecting 11n to 11n. Additionally, system capacity is up and latencies are down – well below those of the cellular data services. That’s good news for VoIP over Wi-Fi.

Naturally mobile operators will cling to voice revenues as long as they can. The recent flap over Google Voice on the iPhone is one example. In the U.K., mobile operator “3” actually offers unlimited Skype (News - Alert) usage on its X-series mobile phones, but you have to download a 3-specific version of Skype – a version that only allows Skype-to-Skype calls. You can’t use SkypeOut or receive calls to your SkypeIn number. In other words, you can’t use Skype to avoid the need for a conventional voice calling plan.

ABI Research (News - Alert) estimates 144 million Wi-Fi enabled mobile phones will ship this year, rising to more than 300 million per year by 2011. Many of these are smart phones. The latest iPhone (News - Alert) includes an 802.11n radio, and by next year all Wi-Fi enabled mobiles are likely to support 802.11n. Expect high-performance mobile VoIP over the Wi-Fi path, even if the operator blocks VoIP over 3G. Is this a stable situation?

Whether it’s VoIP over Wi-Fi in coffee shops or on municipal Wi-Fi, readers can guess the changes ahead. IT

Brough Turner (News - Alert) is chief strategy officer of Dialogic (

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