Cisco jumps out with wireless IP phone

Cisco Systems Inc. is offering a new mobile telephone for use with its IP Communications systems and Voice over IP (Internet Protocol) technology, the company said Monday.

The Cisco Wireless IP Phone 7920 connects to an organization’s IP network through wireless access points using the common 802.11b wireless communications protocol and is being marketed for organizations with mobile workforces such as hospitals, retailers and universities, Cisco said.

With the announcement, Cisco threw its hat in with a handful of other companies that are pioneering the development of mobile phones that rely on wireless LANs (WLANs) rather than traditional cellular networks to communicate.

Also on Monday, SpectraLink Corp., in Boulder, Colorado, announced two mobile wireless handsets: the NetLink e340 and i640 Wireless Telephones.

Like the Cisco 7920, the SpectraLink phones use the 802.11b protocol to connect to WLANs and access Voice over IP (VoIP) networks or circuit-switched PBX (private branch exchange) interfaces, according to SpectraLink.

In addition, mobile computing device maker Symbol Technologies Inc. has sold a number of wireless handsets under its NetVision brand since 1999, including a wireless handset and a combination bar code scanner and handset. The Symbol phones interoperate with other telephony gateways including those by Mitel Networks Corp. and Nortel Networks Corp., in addition to Cisco.

With this product, Cisco was not aiming for a phone that worked across many different vendors’ networks, said Troy Trenchard, director of product marketing in Cisco’s IP Communications business unit.

“Our goal is to design a phone that works better than any other wireless phone in a Cisco network,” Trenchard said. Down the road, the SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) standard should provide for interoperability among IP telephony systems, he added.

In addition, the 7920 can communicate over any standard 802.11b network, but the key to its delivering good voice quality is the intelligence Cisco has built into its own WLAN equipment, he said.

While VoIP networks have been gaining in popularity among organizations looking to simplify voice and data management, applications are limited for VoIP handsets that rely on WLANs.

Cisco’s announcement of the 7920 emphasized its utility in environments “with reliable access to Cisco IP Communications systems” such as warehouses and corporate campuses of companies with global operations.

However, the wireless IP phones that have come to market so far cannot communicate with cellular phone networks and do not operate beyond the reach of the corporate WLAN, making them a tough sell for professionals who want one phone that can be used within the office and when traveling.

Cisco currently is talking to cell phone vendors and other companies to gauge the market for a combined WLAN and cell phone, Trenchard said. Many issues need to be worked out in terms of how the phone would work and how mobile operators would build services for it, he said.

“There’s a lot of things that have to be thought out, and we’re certainly trying to understand them, but I wouldn’t say that we’re anywhere near ready to announce any significant progress, and certainly not a product,” Trenchard said.

The next likely step for a WLAN phone would be the capability to use it in public wireless hot spots. That probably would require a VPN (virtual private network) client on the phone, he said.

“I would expect (that) over time, things will come together in hot spots to make that a worthwhile problem to solve,” Trenchard said.

The 7920 was first unveiled at a Cisco Partner Summit in Las Vegas in April and will join Cisco’s desktop IP phones, the 7960 and 7905G, in the company’s growing line of IP telephony products.

Also on Monday, the San Jose, California, networking equipment maker announced two other IP phones. The 7902G and the 7912G are entry-level IP phone models that are priced to compete with other digital PBX phone sets, Cisco said.

The 7912G is similar to the currently shipping 7905G phone but is equipped with an Ethernet switch. That allows an IT department to run a single Ethernet cable to a desk and plug the PC into the LAN through the IP phone. The 7902G does not have a display and is designed for use in common areas such as building lobbies and break rooms, Trenchard said.

The 7920 will cost US$595 and will begin shipping in June, according to Cisco. The 7902G and 7912G are available immediately and cost US$130 and US$245, respectively, Cisco said. The 7905G is priced at $165.

Cisco’s announcement falls short of providing the longed for “killer application” in the market for IP telephony, according to Elizabeth Herrell, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc.

“It’s just OK,” Herrell said.

The addition of the 7920 phone will help Cisco attract potential customers who are looking for a mobility within a VoIP network, but does not provide true “number portability,” in which mobile phones replace traditional office phones, she said. “It’s another case of adding more value to the IP telephony proposition. (Cisco) is filling in one more link to providing a total solution.”

While Cisco was an early innovator in the area of IP telephony, it will face increasing competition from traditional PBX companies going forward. Competitors such as Alcatel SA, Mitel, Avaya Inc. and Nortel now have IP telephony products that compete against Cisco’s, Herrell said.

If anything, the 7920 phone keeps Cisco abreast of those companies, Herrell said.

“They’re filling another slot of things that they should be offering to have full-feature compatibility (with PBX companies),” she said.

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