Interest Grows In Voice Over Wireless LANs

Vendors such as Meru Networks and Avaya are gearing up for the opportunity
Sending voice phone calls over a wireless LAN has so far been limited to industries such as health care and retail, where mobility is a necessity. But more businesses may be taking the approach as a way to give employees increased mobility and cut back on cellular network charges.

Wireless LAN provider Meru Networks Inc. is among the vendors looking to meet this demand. Last week it revealed a partnership with Voda One, a division of Westcon Inc. that distributes networking and communications products, to develop voice-over-wireless-LAN products for markets based on industry and size. Also last week, Meru and Avaya Inc. said they've completed interoperability tests between Meru's wireless LAN system and Avaya's voice-over-IP technologies, and the two plan to work together on products for the voice-over-wireless-LAN market. Other vendors developing products include Aruba, Chantry Networks, and Cisco Systems for infrastructure, and SpectraLink and Vocera Communications for voice-over-wireless LAN phones and devices.

Voice over wireless LANs differ from voice over Wi-Fi, which transmits IP-based telephone calls over a Wi-Fi network and lets consumers and traveling businesspeople make calls wherever there's a publicly available Wi-Fi hot-spot. Voice over Wi-Fi is trying to grow, too: Boingo Wireless Inc. and mobile-phone company Skype Technologies S.A. last week launched a service that lets Skype customers make unlimited calls using Boingo's hot-spots for $7.95 a month.

New Option For Mobility

Voice over wireless LANs offer a number of benefits:

Employees can take their phone extensions wherever they go

Handsets support both voice and data, making collaboration easier

Cellular costs will be lower when handsets that work on cellular and wireless LANs are available

One example of how wireless LANs are being used for voice is at the the University of Miami Medical Center, which is deploying an infrastructure across its campuses consisting of 800 access points from Meru. Doctors and nurses will have voice-communication badges from Vocera attached to their collars to make and receive hands-free calls over the network wherever they are--even in surgery. "We're saving a lot of time. You can locate people, and you don't have to send pages," says Chris Bogue, director of IT at the medical center. Bogue expects to have 500 badges deployed within eight months and another 750 access points set up in the next five months.

But in the next three years, such specialized uses of voice over wireless LANs will start to be matched by businesses looking to cut costs, predicts Forrester Research analyst Ellen Daley. As more businesspeople use mobile phones instead of desk phones--even to to make calls in the office--cell-phone charges are growing. Nearly half of businesses surveyed by Forrester recently said they'd be interested in adopting handsets that use both cellular and wireless LAN connectivity, Daley says.

The idea is that these dual-mode phones would use a company's wireless LAN when in range and switch to cellular when out of range. All the major telecom carriers are considering upgrading their networks to support dual-mode handsets and are expected to bring them to market within a year, although none has disclosed specific plans, Daley says. They're looking at how they can support the technology while still making money to offset a drop in cellular charges, such as charging businesses a monthly fee to let mobile-phone users move between wireless LANs and cellular networks without losing connectivity. Carriers "can't hesitate too long, because they know there's a demand for cellular-WLAN handsets," Daley says.

There are some technical issues inherent to carrying voice calls over wireless LANs. Voice calls are susceptible to getting dropped because wireless access points don't always provide ubiquitous coverage. Ben Gibson, VP of marketing at Meru, says his company recently brought out a line of radio switches that use a single channel to coordinate transmission among all access points, making the technology right for the market.

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