To VoIP or not to VoIP? That's the question many organisations are grappling with these days. And for some, adding wireless VoIP (voice over Wi-Fi or VoWi-Fi) into the corporate mix is a key ingredient.
IP telephony offers companies the ability to maintain an increasingly mobile workforce, while attaining productivity boosts and big cost savings on long distance calls. Many firms are also seeing improved connectivity and productivity as part of the overall strategy of integrating voice, data and Internet access. For several companies with existing PABX leases, the transition to IP-based technology is not a current reality.
However, times are changing. The use of the technology within the office is becoming more compelling - and VoIP is the precursor of VoWi-Fi. In vertical markets such as retail, many grocery stores are converting entirely to wireless IP voice.
For the general business space, the benefits are compelling. For starters, a business can avoid wiring and rewiring telephone outlets as the company size shifts.
Free to roam
VoWi-Fi lets people communicate wirelessly by phone over enterprise networks and the Internet, redefining the meaning of multitasking. A major driver of the technology is the advent of voice-enabled digital handsets, PDAs and notebook PCs.
In contrast to a mobile cellular phone, the latest Wi-Fi phones allow users to be connected to an enterprise phone system so they can receive calls while they are anywhere in a building or campus environment, 3Com product marketing director, Matt Walmsley, said. Users can roam and stay connected with customers, partners and co-workers while using VoIP, wireless email and data applications. The phones can also be used to transfer calls to other departments, gain access to a live receptionist, and listen to office voicemail.
The technology is designed for people that have mobility requirements on-the-job in markets including education, government, healthcare and retail. These environments have a large amount of nomadic users and large facilities.
Market hits prime time
Cisco consulting systems engineer, Adam Radford, said the evolution of wireless VoIP was following along the same lines as traditional VoIP in the wired world: slowly, but surely building momentum.
"More and more companies are starting to deploy a wireless infrastructure and seeing the benefits of data, but also of voice, and the rollout of applications including location-based services, RFID and voice over wireless LANs," Radford said. He claimed wireless VoIP was moving beyond the early adopters into the general office and even the SMB crowd. Typically, the decision to go the wireless VoIP route was evolutionary, particularly as companies scaled up.
"It's not a rip-and-replace approach, but an optimisation or augmentation," he said.
The challenge for customers and technology providers is getting the networks voice-capable.
"As in the IP wired world, networks are designed for data only, and there are different voice requirements: looking at the density of access points, the range of coverage and the quality of wireless [handing calls off between access points]," Radford said. "It's fair to say that over the last few years, we've been getting the security right, and ensuring the roaming requirements that wireless voice requires. We have a better level of service to voice requirements and the scalability of wireless has improved."
Quality of service (QoS) characteristics important to wireless telephony include jitter control and bandwidth partitioning, he said. Power consumption is another tricky one. When a Wi-Fi device is voice enabled, it sucks up extra power "listening" to detect incoming calls. But manufacturers are developing better sleep modes in a bid to conserve energy.
"We know the challenges; we're getting more comfortable with wireless infrastructure, and now have the capability to turn on voice when required," Radford said. "Companies are realising the business benefits will outweigh the minor hassles associated with putting in better infrastructure. "For partners, a convergence of technologies requires understanding of wireless and also voice. Typically, the infrastructure put in place is designed for data only, so there's an opportunity to re-architect and redesign the network."
Dual-mode spices it up
The rollout of dual-mode technology incorporating cellular and voice over Wi-Fi this year would have the biggest impact on the market and will lift adoption across the board, Radford predicted.
"There are major cost savings because there's one handset," he said. This in turn, boosts mobility and employee productivity. "Dual-mode was the thing everybody was waiting for: it has been three years in the making and very much a work-in-progress," Radford said.
He claimed challenges with battery life and QoS had been sorted.