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Cellular Voice and Voice over Wi-Fi

Bonding like brothers or fighting like predators and prey?

Alliances, competitors, technologies, hardware, and roaming line the path to dual-mode, cellular/Wi-Fi handsets.

Another game of sit and wait has begun as major carriers ready themselves to swallow small providers whole once they have fattened themselves with successful Wi-Fi hotspots. Which end of this communications food chain are you on? Free spectrum is a good motive for providers to get into Voice over Wi-Fi. Providers will leverage the spectrum for voice as they do for data while they continue to build out their hotspots. When there is enough coverage by provider hotspots to make it worth their while, carriers will gobble up those providers. According to Todd Myers, CEO of Airpath,Wi-Fi hotspots will benefit carriers by adding spectrum where cellular spectrum is running out, and by providing needed failover and backup capabilities.

We've seen it with ISPs and DSL providers who made an easy meal for telecoms. You may even have seen the parallel on some nature documentary. The zebra eats the grass, and then the lion eats the zebra. In the same way, once the wild hotspots grow green ($!) and plentiful, and the providers have grown a little fat, the carriers will steal in and devour their prey - and the communication food chain will complete another cycle.

The Numbers Game
According to figures from ABI Research, dual-mode, cellular/Voice-over-Wi-Fi handset shipments will pass 50 million by 2009. "We figure that number three ways," says Philip Solis, an analyst at ABI. First, they take the percentage of cellular handsets that will be Wi-Fi-enabled, regardless of application. Then they take the percentage of that number that will be used for Voice-over-Wi-Fi. Next, they gather carrier input and assess carrier plans and initiatives.

ABI spoke with companies such as Motorola, Proxim, and Avia, companies that will be rolling out solutions this year. "We also looked at what percentage of handsets are purchased by enterprises to give to employees and what percentage of those might opt to eventually replace desktop phones with only one phone where employees can be reached at their desk, in the building, or outside," says Solis. By the way, Solis says the backdrop for those 50-million dual-mode handsets mentioned earlier will be about 750 million handsets of all kinds.

What's Driving the Handsets?
Savings: Get Your Enterprise Phone Tag For Free!

Zero cents per minute or calls at the cost of maintaining hardware and service always sound better than five to fifty cents per minute. When you multiply those savings by the number of enterprise employees, that extra "cha-ching" resonates clearly. When you realize how often they call each other because they aren't able to meet otherwise, the sound of that savings can ring loud as a church bell.

"People are looking at it from a cost perspective. How can they reduce wasted cellular minutes? Two people in the same building are running around, they can't find each other, and they're using their cellphones constantly. So there is a cost-reduction factor," says Solis.

Productivity: One Phone, One Number to Call, One Route to Getting Voice Calls Done
"Above that, there is the increased productivity, the ease-of-use to reach somebody, the ease of managing one voice [device] instead of two. You shave minutes off of multiple transactions; for a lot of people that adds up," says Solis.

Solutions: Servers and Go-Between Boxes
Motorola, Proxim, and Avia are rolling out a joint software solution for cellular/Voice over Wi-Fi handsets in the enterprise space by Q4, '04, according to Solis. "With Motorola and Proxim, Avia is making the server software for roaming among Wi-Fi access points. Motorola provided the server software solution for roaming between the Wi-Fi and cellular networks," says Solis, "and I think Nokia is looking at a solution like that as well but I don't think they are as far along as Motorola, Proxim, and Avia."

Centered on handsets, the handoff is likely to be implemented on the device itself, which will actually be doing the roaming - roaming that will occur between highly diverse technologies from different carriers and providers. "The handset would connect to the other network and then drop the first one once it secures the next connection. It's kind of complex. They are completely different technologies. There is certainly going to be more latency over that transfer than there would be from access point to access point," says Solis.

Various companies are working on Voice-over-Wi-Fi solutions, boxes that integrate Voice-over-Wi-Fi with existing PBX networks. "SpectraLink is one. Vocera is another," says Solis. According to Myers, Motorola is rolling out a box to switch between cellular and Wi-Fi networks for voice calls. According to Solis, it's a simple matter of linking the internal Voice-over-Wi-Fi network with the outgoing gateway.

Ramp Up
According to Myers, while carriers want to let their cellular customers roam seamlessly onto Wi-Fi, it won't be practical for a couple of years, as infrastructure is built out for full coverage and billing standards continue to be set. It's going to take a while to build out the Wi-Fi networks, just as it did with cellular networks.

"You're only talking about 300-500ft [with Wi-Fi coverage] compared to a 3-5 mile range with cell towers, and the end users have to get hold of these dual-mode phones. It takes quite a while for people to spend more money on a new device," says Myers.

As opposed to owning all venues early on, carriers are going after big market targets like airports, and letting providers build out cafes, the 802.16 networks across rural communities, and things like that, according to Myers. Then they'll buy those up later.

Wi-Fi's Protected Jurisdictions
Will there still be a place for Voice over Wi-Fi alone? "Sure. In hospitals, one of the biggest venues for Voice over Wi-Fi, the point is to not use a cellular connection due to sensitive equipment. Giving them pure Voice over Wi-Fi handsets, [or those Vocera badges] fits much better in a hospital," says Solis.

Technical Difficulties
According to Myers, carriers and providers are laying the groundwork for convergence, and are planning to settle with each other fair and square. So much for "telecom predators" and "provider prey" for that part. But technical difficulties and impracticalities may prove predators to initial profits.

Obstacles

  • You have to build a lot of roaming relationships to build value; that can be difficult with not enough hotspots on the map yet.
  • The technology has to know that you are about to roam into a Wi-Fi location from a regular cellular network.
  • It's got to know how to buffer the packets to get set up to go to the Wi-Fi network.
  • Before that, it has to be able to identify what network you're on, who owns that network, how much they are going to be paid, and whether there is a least-cost routing mechanism.
  • Then it has to authenticate that end user before all that packet buffering goes onto the Wi-Fi network.
  • It has to roam outside your cellular network so if you are just walking down the street you don't end up losing a sentence of the conversation during the handoff.

More Stories By David Geer

David Geer is a contributing writer to WBT, a journalist, and a computer technician. He graduated from Lake Erie College in 1993 with a BA in psychology and has worked in the computer industry and in the media since 1998.

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