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VoIP-enabled WLANs offer cutting-edge benefits

Many companies are treading slowly with both VoIP and wireless LAN projects, but one expert at CeBit America last week said that companies should implement them together. By doing so, companies can ensure that their employees can make and receive all their business calls on one phone, from anywhere in the world. The technology, however, faces several hurdles.

NEW YORK -- As companies are starting to get their feet wet with voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and, at the same time, setting up wireless local area networks remains a pet project for many businesses, one presenter at CeBit America 2003 made a strong case for merging the two.

Jason Johnson, director of the Wireless VoIP Consortium and a speaker last week at CeBit, argued that that's why companies should consider adding voice to their Wi-Fi networks. The two technologies are working their way into enterprises on a similar timetable, and companies can gain both increased efficiency and cost savings by deploying wireless VoIP systems.

Citing a study paid for by Cisco Systems Inc., Johnson said that the average employee spends 40% of his time away from his desk. As a result, seven of every 10 calls end up in voicemail, and employees then spend one and a half hours per day leaving and returning voicemail messages.

Given those work patterns, Johnson said, it makes sense for employees to use mobile phones in their offices. However, many companies do not forward calls directly to mobile phones, and increased in-office mobile phone use can be expensive.

If employees use wireless VoIP systems, they will have a single number for all of their calls, he said. They can take their phones with them when they move through the office, and even to remote hot spots, hotels and other places where Wi-Fi networks exist. If an employee is calling the office, these calls can be made at little additional cost.

With VoIP systems, presence awareness functionality can be integrated into the voice applications. Not only can users know who is available before they call, but presence awareness can also cut down on voicemail. Unlike wide area network wireless air interface standards, the 802.11 standard is global; the devices will work anywhere they can pick up a signal.

Michael Jablon, an independent consultant based in Stamford, Conn., and an attendee at the show, said that, with a Wi-Fi VoIP phone using the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) standard, one could make Internet phone calls anywhere in the world for a flat fee. That, he said, is a very compelling application.

But this technology faces a number of hurdles. Wi-Fi security is still an issue, even with the arrival of products that use the improved Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) security protocol.

The largest roadblock is quality of service. Wi-Fi was not designed for voice traffic, which is very sensitive to latency and jitter. Right now, Jablon said, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is developing a new standard called 802.11e, which will give voice traffic priority over data traffic.

Franklin Baitman, a partner with the Stevenson, Md.-based consultancy Nobska Group LLC, said that many companies decide against deploying voice service on top of their wireless LANs because they are not comfortable enough with security and quality of service. But he added that large companies make the opposite decision because they are more comfortable with Wi-Fi as a reliable medium for voice data.


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