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7/13/2005
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Partnerships Look To Expand Voice Over Wi-Fi

VoWi-Fi has the potential to change the way people stay connected at work.

Voice-over-Wi-Fi vendors are looking to expand use of the technology through new partnerships. Meru Networks Inc. on Wednesday revealed a partnership with Voda One, a Westcon Group Inc. division that distributes networking and communications products, to develop voice-over-IP technology that runs on wireless local area networks.

Earlier this week, Wi-Fi provider Boingo Wireless Inc. and Internet telephony company Skype Technologies SA revealed plans to jointly deliver voice over Wi-Fi, or VoWi-Fi, to consumers and mobile professionals.

VoWi-Fi has the potential to change the way people stay connected at work. Voice-over-IP allows the transmission of phone calls over the Internet using wired networks. VoWi-Fi can be extended from voice-over-IP networks companies already have in place and allows employees to take their phone extensions wherever they go.

Months ago, vendors were rolling out standalone products to enable VoWi-Fi communication. The market is seeing more partnerships to deliver scalable VoWi-Fi technology to a broader group of customers.

Meru launched a new category of wireless products built for high-density data and VoIP applications in May at the Interop 2005 conference in Las Vegas. Its line of radio switches is designed to prevent drop-off spots in wireless networks, making them appropriate for VoWi-Fi, says Ben Gibson, VP of marketing at Meru.

Voice calls on a wireless network are susceptible to getting dropped because the network operates using wireless access points that don't always provide ubiquitous coverage. In response to that problem, Meru has developed a system that uses a single channel to coordinate transmission among all access points, allowing users to roam around a large area.

Meru's customers include universities, school districts, public institutions, government agencies, convention centers, hotels, and business branch offices. But the vendor is extending its customer reach through a channel partner program, also launched Wednesday.

Meru's partnership with Voda One includes developing wireless VoIP products to fit the individual needs of different types of businesses. Voda One is a major sales channel for IP telephony provider Avaya Inc. and other manufacturers, and a combination of Avaya's and Meru's technologies will give customers the performance, control, and management requirements for a high-traffic environment that supports VoWi-Fi, says Paul Cunningham, VP of the technology solutions group at Westcon Group. Meru completed interoperability testing of its wireless LAN system with Avaya's IP telephony products this week.

Now that the VoIP and wireless LAN components are in place, Meru has to wait for low-cost handsets that will support voice over wireless LANs to hit the market. Gibson expects Wi-Fi desktop phones, from vendors such as SpectraLink Corp. and Vocera Communications Inc., and Wi-Fi-enabled PDAs to be available sometime this year. Dual-mode cell phones with an integrated wireless LAN interface might take a little longer, he says.

Meanwhile, Skype has more than 45 million users, and Boingo offers about 18,000 Wi-Fi hot-spots worldwide. Under the new Skype Zones service, Skype customers will be able to get unlimited access for calls made using Boingo's hot-spots for $7.95 a month, according to the companies. The companies say their partnership reflects the evolution of public-access Wi-Fi to support VoIP and other emerging applications.

Ultimately, VoWi-Fi could help eliminate cellular costs because companies can run that traffic over the wireless LAN instead of having to maintain a separate network. "Converging voice traffic over data network and adding mobility to it is ideal for larger enterprises," Gibson says.

But, Yankee Group analyst Roberta Wiggins says, voice over Wi-Fi opens the network up to shortcomings like security issues and decreased bandwidth.

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