Wireless VoIP marries two hot technologies

What do you get when you combine voice over IP (VoIP) functionality and wireless local area networks (WLANs)? Either high-tech’s next big thing, or a technology with prospects that are, in the words of one industry analyst, “somewhat limited.”

While equipment vendors tout “wireless VoIP” as the greatest combo since pinstripes and suits, others suggest this commingled technology faces a battle for attention among Canadian enterprises.

Wireless VoIP marries WLANs and VoIP, essentially transporting phone calls over untethered local area networks. According to some, it’s just the thing for enterprise “corridor warriors” – people who spend their workdays flitting between conference rooms and breakout sessions – but still require telephone and Internet access while on the move.

WLANs address data connectivity for these in-building butterflies, giving them wireless access to the corporate backbone. Bellevue, Wa.-based TeleSym Inc. means to add wireless voice to the mix with its software, called SymPhone, so roving workers receive e-mails and telephone calls on their personal digital assistants (PDAs) or notebook computers, no matter where they are in the office.

According to Joe Dodson, TeleSym’s vice-president of marketing and business development, SymPhone makes sense for corporations already interested in WLANs.

“They can in essence double their ROI (return on investment),” he said.

But one industry analyst questions wireless VoIP’s prospects, especially in Canada. Brian Platts, an associate consultant with NBI-Michael Sone Associates Inc. in Toronto, said TeleSym’s technology is “extremely impressive, however, we feel the market is somewhat limited.”

Platts said wireless VoIP speaks to super-large companies – places where employees might require instant voice connectivity but often find themselves nowhere near their desktop telephones.

But such massive enterprises are rare in this country, Platts said. As far as he’s concerned, TeleSym should “talk to the service providers, target those guys,…the independent ISPs bleeding red ink because they can’t make a buck selling broadband connections. That’s where I see the market going.”

Still, one large organization is considering wireless VoIP for its campuses. The Chatham-Kent Health Alliance (CKHA), which operates three health care facilities in Chatham and Wallaceburg, Ont., might use the technology to connect caregivers.

Jerome Quenneville, the CKHA’s vice-president of finance and corporate services, said nurses already use mobile computers to access patient information. Wireless VoIP is the next step, he said, explaining that it should outperform earlier mobile systems.

“We have [Nortel Networks Corp.’s wireless system] Companion at one of our sites,” Quenneville said. “So we have two-way communication.”

Companion might well provide voice connectivity, but not data, he said. Meanwhile, pager systems – another option for the CKHA – offer no voice access.

All in all, wireless VoIP offers the best of both worlds, Quenneville said, adding that the CKHA is far from making a final decision about the technology. “I’ve looked at a couple (products) that might be close, but we haven’t done any evaluations at this point.”

TeleSym hopes to land a space on corporations’ short lists with its wireless VoIP software, which runs on PDAs and notebook computers. The company recently hooked up with 3Com Corp. to ensure interoperability between SymPhone and 3Com’s IP PBX, dubbed NBX.

With SymPhone, users can send and receive calls while moving about the workplace. Calls would enter via the PBX, traverse the WLAN and terminate at the user’s PDA.

During a PDA-to-PDA demonstration at ComputerWorld Canada‘s office in Toronto, SymPhone exhibited digital radio-quality sound – a stereophonic experience that outdoes plain old telephone service.

TeleSym has two SymPhone flavours: System N offers PDA-to-PDA calls but no connection to the PSTN; System NP connects users to the PSTN. The company says pricing averages US$300 per client.

Trent Ready, 3Com Canada Inc.’s voice business development manager, pointed out that certain factors, such as powerful PDAs on the market and increased WLAN usage among businesses, lay the groundwork for a wireless VoIP groundswell.

“All the pieces are there to take advantage of what already exists,” Ready said.

But what about security? Wireless LANs are notorious for poor protection. Meanwhile, users expect a high level of privacy when it comes to voice connections.

NBI’s Platts said customers need not worry. “The 802.11 security issue has been addressed,” he said, alluding to the IEEE-sanctioned wireless security protocol, 802.1x. He added, “the biggest security leaks happen because there is no security.” He was referencing reports of coordinated war-driving efforts wherein surreptitious network sleuths discover countless WLANs lacking even basic security measures.

Ready also said security is less of an issue than some suggest. “The enterprise has figured out ways to solve the security problem. They want wireless.”