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Spectrum analyzer hunts wireless VoIP interference

Wi-Fi is prone to interference. So is wireless VoIP. Cognio has updated its Spectrum Expert to track down interference and give managers a detailed view of the network.

Rolling out wireless VoIP can be a daunting task, even for the most skilled IT shops.

Other devices interfere, resulting in dropped calls, increased jitter, and obnoxious latency. And the real-time nature of voice and other applications makes any sort of disruption unacceptable.

Germantown, Md.-based Cognio recently augmented its line of Spectrum Expert management platforms to include new features, such as the ability to sniff out anything that may be creating wireless VoIP headaches.

According to Cognio, IT managers can now create detailed device and channel charts that show the impact of specific gear on each Wi-Fi channel and how it could affect the channel and overall network performance. Those reports give IT the insight to remove, move, shield or replace devices to eliminate the negative impact and boost the Wi-Fi network's performance.

Mike Outmesguine, president of TransStellar Inc., a Los Angeles-based IT services company, has been using Cognio's products to examine his Wi-Fi network. Though he hasn't yet used it specifically to troubleshoot VoIP, Outmesguine said he has solved some major interference problems using Spectrum Expert.

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"I use it to look at the radio frequencies," he said. "It's a way to troubleshoot what's happening in the air."

And being able to drill down to exactly what could be interfering with the wireless network has come in handy on more than one occasion, Outmesguine said.

"The tools that come with most Wi-Fi gear don't have the ability to see anything other than signal strength and noise," he said. "They don't have the ability to detect a microwave oven, a cordless phone, or something else entirely. This lets you see the invisible; what's exactly going on in the air."

Outmesguine, who also runs the SoCal Wireless Users Group, said he used Spectrum Expert at the home of a friend who was having Wi-Fi connectivity problems, though the signal strength was high and the noise was low. Using the interface, he pinpointed three cordless phones that were interfering and vying for the same spectrum. Once the phones were unplugged, Wi-Fi was back up and running at full connectivity.

"Instantly, the spectrum was clean and Wi-Fi was excellent," he said. "[The cordless phones were] something you wouldn't see. The signal looked OK, the noise wasn't too high. It was just an instant discovery. Being able to see the spectrum was great."

That experience, Outmesguine said, showed him how beneficial Spectrum Expert could be in a wireless VoIP environment as well.

"If you have a bad Ethernet cable, you don't care what applications are going over it," he said. "You care that there's a problem and you want to fix it. It's the same with Wi-Fi and VoIP."

Spectrum Expert user Vocera Communications said in a statement that the product "makes it easier for us to troubleshoot our customers' wireless VoIP deployments" than other tools do.

This lets you see the invisible; what's exactly going on in the air.
Mike Outmesguine
PresidentTransStellar Inc.
"With Spectrum expert, we're able to quickly determine whether dropped calls are the result of interference or configuration problems," said Robin Jellum, marketing engineer for Vocera. "It removes the guesswork and reduces the time to troubleshoot wireless networks."

Numerous enterprises are adding VoIP to their wireless LANs to boost end-user productivity, but adding real-time services on a Wi-Fi network presents new challenges not found in the wired world. With wireless, the environment frequently changes, bandwidth is shared, and interference from other devices is common. For peak performance, enterprises need to see and understand the environment in which Wi-Fi operates and know what the fingerprint of the spectrum is.

Spectrum Expert plots the energy of the spectrum and reads and lists the devices that are using it. Knowing what devices -- Bluetooth, microwave ovens, cordless phones -- are in the general area can help IT set policies to deal with possible intrusions and interruptions. For example, a corporation could set a policy barring cordless headsets and handsets because they could interfere.

"Enterprise Wi-Fi networks are no longer a best-effort convenience service for Internet connectivity and e-mail; they are becoming an integral part of the IT department's overall network plan for innovative applications such as wireless VoIP," said William Flanagan, Cognio's marketing vice president. "For these services to be effective, IT managers need to ensure that the underlying physical layer of the wireless network can consistently support these services, and if not, eliminate the interference."

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