NEC and Motorola team on wireless voice and data

Motorola Inc. and NEC America Inc. are teaming up to offer an infrastructure that lets enterprise employees use one wireless phone with one number both in the office and while on the road, enjoying corporate calling features such as dialing by extension.

The phones will use voice over IP (VoIP) over wireless LANs (WLANs) and also work as cell phones. Server-based call control software from Motorola, called Mobility Manager, will handle a seamless handoff between the wireless LAN and the cellular network so employees can continue calls when they enter or leave the office, according to Nicholas Labun, vice-president of Motorola’s wireless LAN seamless mobility business.

Through integration with NEC’s PBX platforms and a managed WLAN infrastructure that the companies also are working on together, the phones will be able to take advantage of some PBX features both inside and outside the office. Employees also could get access to internal company applications such as calendars, directories and e-mail on the devices when they are on the WLAN, Labun said.

The system will consist of an NEC PBX with VoIP capability, the Mobility Manager software, the WLAN infrastructure and the handsets. The deal is non-exclusive and is an extension of a Motorola strategy that kicked off with an earlier agreement with Avaya Inc. and Proxim Inc., Labun said. Motorola, in Schamburg, Illinois, is working with more than one major PBX and WLAN vendor because there are large installed bases of different systems in place, sometimes two within one corporation, he said.

The handsets all will be equipped with Texas Instruments Inc. chips that support IEEE 802.11a, b and g WLAN connectivity, but they may come in a variety of models that work with different kinds of WLANs to match up with companies’ existing infrastructures, he said. Likewise, depending on which mobile operators want to support the system, handsets may be equipped with Integrated Digital Enhanced Network (iDEN), Global System for Mobile Communication/General Packet Radio Service (GSM/GPRS) or Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) functionality.

The handheld device will be designed primarily for voice but will have greater data capabilities than typical current cell phones, Labun said. It will be based on Microsoft Corp.’s Windows CE operating system, according to Paul Weismantel, director of enterprise solutions at NEC America, an Irving, Tex., affiliate of Japan’s NEC Corp. Labun would not confirm that detail and said the companies have not yet announced what operating system the device will run.

Nextel Communications Inc., a Reston, Va., mobile operator that uses iDEN and has a large base of enterprise customers, began trials with Motorola of a cell phone with WLAN capability in the second quarter of this year, Nextel executive vice-president and chief technology officer Barry West said in March. West also said the operator would offer by next year a Motorola phone based on Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Powered Smartphone platform.

Nextel is interested in the potential of services like those the NEC-Motorola partnership would allow, but it’s too early to tell whether they could deliver what they seem to promise, West said.

“The reason we’re investigating this is…to see if we can make the technology work, but also to see if there’s a customer interest,” he said. Employees might end up logging less time on the cellular network, but the operator could charge the company a fee to use the special service, he said.

“One of the principal benefits to the carrier would be the loyalty of the customer,” West said.

NEC and Motorola are eyeing three vertical markets – health care, hospitality and education – as ripe for adoption of the system, which should become generally available in North America in mid-2004, Weismantel said.

Such a system could solve a problem that vendors have been trying to solve in other ways: Simplifying corporate phone systems down to just one phone for each employee to use in the office or on the road, said David Chamberlain, an analyst at Probe Group LLC, in Cedar Knolls, N.J. Managing phones could become easier too, because telecommunications managers wouldn’t have to account for employees moving across the office to a new fixed-line phone.

“The cell phone and PBX industries have both put a lot of effort into doing that, historically,” Chamberlain said. In the past, this required a separate cell phone network in the enterprise and users roaming onto that network when they were in the office. Being able to reuse a company’s IP and WLAN infrastructure removes much of the cost and complexity, he said.

However, the companies are taking on significant and new technological challenges, particularly the problem of handing off calls between the two networks, said Meta Group Inc. analyst Chris Kozup.

“VoIP alone, even on a switched segment, has its immaturities,” Kozup said. Most Meta Group consulting customers that are using WLAN for voice have found the networks can only support four or five simultaneous calls on one access point.

Such a technology might pay off for organizations in specific industries such as health care or warehousing, where some employees are highly mobile and need to be reachable at all times. However, if mainstream enterprises start using the dual-mode phones, it is likely to be in addition to wired desktop phones rather than to replace them, he said.

“The proof in the pudding will be when these vendors can show us a carrier who is on board with this,” Kozup said.

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