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Let’s Talk about 802.11

Mon, 10/03/2005 - 11:37am
Ern Worthman,
Editorial Director

I’ve been following the Voice over IP (VoIP) movement pretty closely for a while and this isn’t the first time I’ve addressed it in this space.


I like to revisit this on a regular basis because it has the potential to have a fairly significant effect on our industry. Not VoIP so much but "VoWi-Fi," or "Vo-Fi," as it is fondly been shortened to.


There has been much fanfare about making enterprise-class VoIP calls over 802.11-based wireless LANs (Wi-Fi). But, to date, there has been a lot more discussion and posturing than deployments. If you listened to the pundits a year ago, we should all be on Vo-Fi by now.


I came across a survey conducted a few months ago by Webtorials, a Web-based networking research and education firm, that has some interesting statistics. They surveyed 419 enterprises asking if they had already or will shortly (within six months) deployed 802.11 phones. Only 18% said they had or will.


The burning question I (and likely many others) have is why is there such a slow adoption of this technology?


Well, the answer really isn’t that big of a mystery. Like most emerging technologies, Vo-Fi technology is still over promised and under performing. Not that it doesn’t work, technologically, but then, most things like this aren’t about technology… it’s about what I call I3 — integration, interconnect and implementation.


On top of the "A" list is the lack of dual mode handsets and service plans from cellular service providers that support both cell and Vo-Fi calls from the same device — that’s a biggie. Personally there is no way I’m going to carry two handsets, and neither is anyone else. First things first and that is carriers need a realistic business plan that involves dual-mode handsets.


Once that is firmly on the road to implementation, a big issue is that the Wi-Fi portion of the network can’t exist in a vacuum. It needs to integrate and interoperate, from a feature, security and reliability perspective, with the rest of the enterprise network, including the VoIP component. These issues still needs tighter integration and mutually beneficial standards. Once these issues are resolved, there will be a platform to enable other vital components like:


• E-911— Emergency call applications that work from Wi-Fi handsets. This could otherwise become a liability as E-911 gains an increasingly higher profile in light of today’s security unrest.


•" Intelligent" Vo-Fi networks. — Networks need to be able to intelligently optimize call routing and capacity planning.


• Quality-of-service (QoS). — In terms of voice specifically and data in general, the Wi-Fi industry is still ironing out important QoS and roaming standards to assure that reliability and performance approaches five 9’s. (Yeah, right!)


• Location-based services (LBS) — Issues here include power-consumption and location tracking issues in Wi-Fi-enabled phones. So far, the closest thing today to an industry standard for collecting and presenting Wi-Fi location information is an optional component to the emerging IEEE 802.11k extension for radio resource management — the key word here being "optional."


Realistically, the Vo-Fi space is still far from stable. There is no or little support in the IP-PBX space for wireless. IP-PBX vendors will have to start supporting wireless in PBX environments by integrating protocols such as Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) on the line side, which is the connection from the PBX to the phone. IP-PBX makers add to basic SIP, SIP-enabled handsets then would be able to interoperate with some IP-PBX calling features, expanding users' mobile phone choices (such as three-way calling). There is a need for a standard software platform here as well.


And, lastly, for this column (due to the fact that I’m running out of space), is intelligence distribution. The IP-PBX, or whatever type of multimedia communications server it morphs into, must contain the intelligence to make these decisions and interact with the mobile handset’s intelligence appropriately, based on policy. And don’t forget that capacity planning is another significant issue with data and voice sharing the same resources. For Vo-Fi to be fully embraced by mainstream enterprise users, QoS, roaming standards, the RF network and the location of mobile devices must become better integrated with telephony applications.


And finally, let’s not forget the politics. There are likely billions of dollars at stake here. Wo-Fi phones have the potential to decimate cellular carriers, once ubiquitous Wi-Fi and WiMAX networks abound (and they will). You can bet they aren’t going to take this lying down.


I’m out of room for elaboration on the politics (just wait until my blog is up and running) but I think I’ve raised enough issues to be fairly confident that we aren’t going to see Wo-Fi phones as the next killer application anytime soon.


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