Bridge built between cell and WLANs

A trio of high-tech equipment vendors has unveiled a communications platform that, according to the gear-makers, lets users continue phone calls as they cross from cellular into wireless LAN (WLAN) serving areas. But one industry analyst is skeptical of the claim.

Avaya Inc., Motorola Inc. and Proxim Corp. in July announced a joint venture in wireless networking that aims to bridge the erstwhile disparate worlds of cellular and WLAN. The firms developed WLAN equipment for enterprise environments, network management software, and a new cell-WLAN mobile handset designed to traverse the two sorts of untethered infrastructure. Motorola offers up the CN620, a mobile phone that can operate on cell and WLAN networks.

It uses the 802.11a wireless protocol for WLANs. Motorola’s Wireless Services Manager (WSM) takes care of the cellular-to-WLAN handoff, while the Network Services Manager (NSM) platform offers system configuration and network management. Avaya’s W310 WLAN Gateway, another piece of this architecture, “is a true joint development” between the three companies, said Mack Leathurby, an Avaya marketing director. He said the W310 acts as the intelligent bridge between Motorola’s cell-Wi-Fi phone and Proxim’s wireless access points (APs), the W110s.

He said the combination of smart gateway, access points and network-flexible handset means users can carry on phone calls as they cross from the wide-area cellular world to the local, enterprise-based WLAN world without worrying that their conversations will be cut off.

Michael Rozender, a wireless industry analyst in Oakville, Ont., said this tri-vendor venture might speak to companies whose employees need in-office phones as well as out-of-office connectivity. But Rozender also said he’s skeptical of the vendors’ claim that the system would offer seamless handoffs between cell and WLANs. He noted that it’s difficult to marry the two systems.

“I want to see it,” Rozender said, explaining that he would remain doubtful about the seamless handoffs until he witnessed them for himself. The vendors said the cell-WLAN system would be available later this year.

Dave Eagan is also curious about the technology. He’s the architect, infrastructure development at the University Health Network’s (UHN) shared information management services department in Toronto. The UHN operates a number of hospitals, including Toronto General, which has a WLAN (SpectraLink Corp. WLAN phones and APs from Cisco Systems Inc.) for internal mobile phone calls.

Eagan said the cell-WLAN system might speak to some of Toronto General’s doctors who leave the health care facility to teach at sister institution University of Toronto. “But in terms of our day to day needs, we haven’t seen a big push,” he said.

Eagan also said, however, that cell phones like the Motorola CN620 that can throttle down to WLAN connectivity are good news for hospitals.

These organizations often ban cell phones, which might interfere with medical equipment. Cell phones that operate on WLANs would pose no more threat to medical devices than do the WLAN phones used at Toronto General, Eagan pointed out, indicating that the dual-network platform might find fans in the health care industry.

Eagan offered some advice about setting up WLANs, noting that the UHN uses passive LComm Inc. antennas in the serving areas, but keeps the APs in communications closets. If the UHN wants to upgrade or change its AP infrastructure, Eagan and his team need not tear into ceilings and walls to access the devices. “We’ve already gone from (802.11)b to (802.11)g and it was seamless,” he said.

Rozender said it’s important to mind the telecom bills with cell-WLAN technology. It’s important to make sure employees understand that, unlike in-office WLAN connectivity, cell connections aren’t free. Employees that don’t recognize the fiscal distinction between the two networks can cost the enterprise a lot of money in airtime charges.

Leathurby from Avaya said companies should be sure to conduct site audits before installing any wireless gear. It’s imperative for the enterprise to know where wireless signals might falter in the office, and to plan with signal-enhancing architecture, if it’s to have a successful WLAN installation.

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