By Galen Gruman, editorial director, IT Wireless magazine
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Does Voice over Wireless Make Sense?
For several years, enterprises have been pitched voice over IP (VoIP) systems to replace their Centrex-based private branch exchange (PBX) phone systems. Given the huge investment in PBXs, most companies ignored the VoIP entreaties, since the benefits of having centralized network management for both voice and data traffic didn't justify the expense of replacing such a core system. However, VoIP has soldiered on and is gaining acceptance in new offices, where companies don't have to replace an existing system. VoIP systems are no longer the province of untested startups, and instead are now supported by major providers such as Nortel and Cisco, and the interfaces between VoIP and traditional PBXs have made such piecemeal integration easy.
Because of this groundwork, another variant of VoIP -- voice over wireless IP (VoWIP) -- is gaining traction. The idea is simple: For workers who are not at a desk -- nurses, doctors, technicians, retail managers and customer-service staff, warehousing staff, security guards, teachers, maintenance staff, and so on -- but need to be accessible quickly, use wireless LANs as the transport mechanism for voice communications. Because these employees work within a defined geography, companies can dump pagers and cell phones that cost money every month for a system that uses free radio spectrum and instead just requires lower, annual software maintenance fees. (Note that VoWIP handsets typically cost twice as much as a standard wired phone-and-headset.) Unlike other free-air alternatives such as walkie-talkies, VoWIP systems can integrate into the corporate phone system, so users can contact anyone, not just those on the same walkie-talkie system, and anyone can contact them as well. Plus, users get to use telephony features such as call forwarding, extension dialing, and distribution lists for leaving messages with multiple recipients, as well as the ability to connect to any PBX-connected public address (PBA) system. There's also a level of security possible with the basic 802.11 Wired Equivalent Protocol (WEP) standard and much better security through add-on technologies like the long-established Kerberos protocol.
Although the fundamental benefits are the same, VoWIP providers do have a some difference in their approaches:
The benefits seem obvious, so why isn't VoWIP more common? InStat/MDR estimates that there were 20,000 VoWIP users in 2001 and earlier this year it projected there would be 80,000 in 2002. That's individual handsets, not companies. But that 80,000 number hasn't happened, at least not according to the two top providers of VoWIP systems, Symbol Technologies and SpectraLink. Both say that while interest and pilot deployments are running at a fevered pitch, sales have remained basically flat this year, due largely to that bad economy.
There are signs the market will increase, as the utility of VoWIP and its relatively low deployment cost -- especially for companies that have already invested in wireless LANs -- provides sufficient ROI benefit to get funding. Cisco Systems is widely expected to enter the market in spring 2003, and Mitel, Avaya, and Nortel are already in it at the premises-equipment/PBX end. Plus, the major enterprise wireless access point providers -- Cisco, Symbol, Proxima, LXE, Intermec, and Interasys -- have incorporated SpectraLink's quality-of-service provisioning technology for voice, to prevent audio cutouts during conversation. The big names are moving in.
Across all user segments, typical payback is 12 to 18 months, says Rich Watson, Symbol's directory of telephony product marketing, with a faster ROI for organizations that are adding VoWIP to an existing wireless LAN infrastructure. VoWIP vendors are seeing very strong interest in the retailing sector, especially at home-improvement chains such as Home Depot and Lowe's, in addition to mall-based retailers like Barnes & Noble and Toys 'R' Us. Medical facilities are also a key market, since having nurses, doctors, technicians, and others able to communicate no matter where they are is critical. While doctors may always need to have pagers since they usually work at several hospitals, the other health care workers tend to work in one location. A new market opening up in the afternath of the Columbine student massacre in Colorado a few years ago is the education market, where security concerns are prodding schools to invest in VoWIP phones for teachers, maintenance staff, school nurses, administration, and security guards. Although schools typically have limited monies, districts and foundations are providing funds for security technologies, says Watson.
I believe that VoWIP is a no-brainer, even for companies that aren't using VoIP for their wired phone users. The number of workers who aren't at a desk is large -- about 15%, says SpectraLink marketing director Ben Guderian. Symbol's Watson estimates that about 5% to 10% of the workforce in VoIP-adopting companies is mobile, making VoWIP a significant extension to VoIP deployments.Vocera's Lang says that the 5,400 acute care facilities in the U.S. alone provide a $1 billion market, while the top six "big box" chain stores like Target and Sears represent another $500 million in possible market. While the enterprise couldn't care less what a vendor's possible market size is, these figures show that there are enough possible users to ensure that vendors will invest in VoWIP technology. And that means more choice and better products for the enterprise. The benefits of VoWIP are obvious, and as companies look for strong ROI on their technology investments in these tough times, I believe many will put VoWIP in their short list.PRODUCT SCAN:
With the Thanksgiving holiday and the Comdex PR blitz the week before, there's been only minor activity on the product front this past week. Among the notable highlights:
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The Latest in the Wireless Marketplace
Simple services will drive the so-called mobile Internet -- the industry's misleading term for cellular-based data services -- this coming year, concludes the Center for Telecom Management at the University of Southern California. Such services must evolve from cellular phone's core competencies: text messaging, email, and voice, the center says. In a study to be released this month, the center warns cellular operators to work together to provide compelling services and interoperability, since none has the wherewithal to do everything itself. The way things now stand, the center expects U.S. adoption of higher-speed data services (under the banner of 3G, which includes the GPRS, EDGE, and CDMA2000 technologies) will languish. The study's conclusions are hardly surprising to anyone who's followed the mobile data market for the last few years, but they bear repeating, since the cellular carriers don't appear to have been listening too hard as yet. Until they do, enterprises will have to rely on simpler but proven systems like the BlackBerry for anytime, anywhere access and on 802.11 hot spots for more sophisticated wireless connections where they are available.
The Mobile Health Care Alliance is trying to resolve concerns at some medical facilities over possible electromagnetic interference from wireless devices. The alliance advocates the use of wireless technologies to help doctors, nurses, and other staff stay connected to each other and to patient information. It claims that most interference concerns are based on unproven, anecdotal assertions, so it is commissioning a study in 2003 to identify where interference may actually occur so that vendors can resolve any real issues. It plans to follow up next fall at its annual conference. The wireless industry might be well-served to jump on this effort to remove any real problems and put to rest the imagined ones.
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