On paper, voice over WiFI looks like a winner.
The technology gives wireless office handset, dual-mode cellular or laptop softphone users the ability to have calls switched over a wireless LAN connected to a local phone line, thus potentially offering big savings on landline or cellular bills.
But according to a report last week from ABI Research of New York, the emerging technology has a big stumbling block: A lack of standardization on technicalities such as roaming between access points, network management, quality of service and load balancing.
As a result, many VoWiFi vendors have to partner with handset, PBX, security, fixed mobile convergence or software management companies to assemble a total package whose pieces are unlikely able to work with gear from others manufacturers.
“Don’t try to mix and match or develop your own solution,” advises ABI vice-president and research director Stan Schatt. For the time being, IT buyers should watch out for vendors selling total solutions that are essentially proprietary, he said.
The strength of a VoWiFi equipment vendor’s overall solution is directly proportional to the strength of its ecosystem partners, he said.
However, Scatt said this will partly change later this year when the WiFi Alliance, an industry group, begins certifying interoperability of enterprise-class dual-mode handsets.
The first generation of gear has largely been aimed at the consumer market, with manufacturers such as D-Link, Belkin, Netgear and Linksys offering products.
But VoWiFi is becoming increasingly of interest in North America to certain verticals, such as healthcare, hospitality, manufacturing and retail, where staffers often roam around large buildings or more than one building.
VoWiFi can appealing in hospitals, where cellphone use is restricted; in convention centres to reduce the need for two-way radios; and on factory floors where supervisors can be in constant reach.
Among enterprise communications companies, Cisco Systems (NASDAQ: CSCO), Nortel Networks (NYSE: NT) and Avaya have entries in this market. However, Schatt said Cisco, Nortel and Nokia Siemens only offer VoWiFi on their own PBXs, limiting interoperability.
That has given opportunity for brands such as Meru Networks, Trapeze Networks and Aruba Networks to form partnerships and offer end to end solutions. For example, Meru’s VoIP Unplugged program includes handset maker Ascom, IP-PBX maker Avaya, switch manufacturer Juniper Networks and others.
ABI stresses that no one vendor can deliver a complete in-house solution. Cisco, for example, partners with Nokia and others on handsets through its CCX extensions program.
Handset makers are attracted to DiVitas Networks, which is one of several with software allowing calls to be shifted from a PBX to WiFI-enabled phones.
Still, ABI has concluded that Cisco has the most highly-developed VoWiFi ecosystem. Other wireless LAN equipment makers with good ecosystems are Nortel, Aruba, Trapeze, Meru and Motorola.
Those with significant gaps in either functionality or partnerships include Hewlett-Packard and Extreme Networks.
The standards problem is particularly sticky and one unlikely to be resolved this year, says ABI.
For example, ABI says, while the IEEE 802.11r committee on roaming may deliver its final report this year, the 802.11k committee on load balancing and 802.11v group on WLAN management likely won’t be finished until next year.
This last is a particular difficulty, says ABI, because management systems allow troubleshooting capabilities.
Kyle Klassen, Nortel’s director of enterprise mobility solutions, says VoWiFi is “getting tremendous interest” from organizations. It offers a single-mode phone and, through its Communications Server 1000, cellular support for smartphones running the Windows Mobile 5.0 and 5.0 operating systems.
However, he disagrees with ABI that lack of equipment interoperability is hindering the spread of VoWiFi. A more serious problem is wireless LAN infrastructures that did not anticipate the possible need for wireless voice, he said.