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Maturing Wi-Fi cellular convergence options push UC forward

Dual-mode Wi-Fi/cellular phones can simplify communications by taking one gadget out of the equation and adding in extra mobility.

Dual-mode Wi-Fi/cellular phones can simplify communications by taking one gadget out of the equation and adding in extra mobility.

Patrick Tisdale, CIO of the law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, needed to keep his firm's high-powered lawyers connected to demanding clients whenever and wherever they were.

"The idea that you come off the cell network to save money is not what we're going for," Tisdale said. "I'm not sure at the end of the day it is saving money."

It is more important to keep employees connected in a simple, reliable fashion, he said. Orrick has been trialing Agito's RoamAnywhere platform in one of its branch offices as it upgrades its wireless network.

Enterprises using dual-mode phones can route calls through their own IP PBX when compatible phones are within range of a Wi-Fi signal, switching on the fly to a cellular connection when they're not.

This on-the-fly connection can be powered by an appliance -- from manufacturers such as NEC, Siemens or Agito – that sits on the local network and monitors connections. When the proper criteria (often signal strength or location) are met and credentials are provided, the appliance signals to the phone to automatically flip over to the strongest network.

Craig Mathias, principal analyst at Farpoint Group, said these implementations could solve a variety of business problems, but the primary value for most enterprises would be untying workers from their desks and boosting their productivity.

"The more time people spend waiting, the less productive they are," Mathias said. By having their cell phone be their office phone, users could quit playing phone tag and could make calls where convenient, not where the reception is available or when they are sitting at their desks.

He said the technology, currently with only small market adoption, would benefit greatly as enterprises upgraded their networks over the next few years to the 802.11n standard, which provides more complete, seamless coverage.

The RoamAnywhere appliance that Tisdale has been trialing allows users to migrate from the cellular network to Wi-Fi coverage without interrupting a conversation to type in a code. The system automatically re-routes calls on the fly and creates a seamless transition from access point to access point with software that prevents audio gaps. A thin client on the phone and a central appliance coordinate the handoff of calls between networks.

Another key benefit for the law firm has been indoor cell reception: Previously, their modern offices with multi-paned glass had killed any chance of placing a clear call.

Tisdale also said that Agito gave him the ability to add advanced features traditionally unavailable with cell phones, such as forwarding calls from only certain numbers after hours.

Tisdale will wait until Agito expands the number of mobile platforms it supports before rolling out the technology company-wide. Currently, the company supports the Nokia Symbian operating system, but executives have said that support for Windows Mobile and BlackBerry phones is on the way. Support for the latter category will be a must in many organizations, including Tisdale's, as business users tied to the devices would be loath to give them up.

Mathias warned, though, that ditching the landline is not for everyone. Jobs where the worker is tied to a location, such as a call center or help desk, would probably do better to keep the solid reliability of landlines, as they would gain little from being able to take their phone anywhere. In these cases, if appropriate, a call forwarding solution might fill the need.

Adopting wireless calling might also require a boost in Wi-Fi infrastructure. Pejman Roshan, Agito's vice president of marketing, said typical customers had to boost their number of access points by about 10%.

There remains a wide subset of problems that these convergence solutions can help solve. Many buildings have poor cell phone reception, for example, a problem potentially mitigated through a properly deployed wireless network. Other enterprises might be trying to cut prohibitive cell phone bills or help manage a field solution for mobile professionals. Ultimately, the cost-benefit equation comes down to one factor.

"You might spend [more], you might spend less. It's a difficult analysis," Mathias said. "The ultimate determinant [of] value is productivity."

Dual-mode Wi-Fi/cellular phones will become more popular, he said, particularly among the smartphone class of devices, giving deployments more flexibility in choosing the phones that work best for them, while ensuring that -- no matter the service provider -- all employees can access the benefits of constant, unified connectivity.

"Wi-Fi is going to become ubiquitous over time," Mathias said. "And it's the closest thing we have to a global wireless standard."

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