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What about mobile VoIP?

A look at advances in mobile VoIP technology and how innovations may gain hold long before the mobile VoIP infrastructure is in place.

Earlier this spring, technical companies that included Sun Microsystems, Nextel, and Cisco voiced strong enthusiasm for—and varying degrees of investment in—wireless forms of voice over IP technology at the CTIA (Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association) Wireless 2004 conference. In the intervening half year, the topic continues to generate a lot of buzz and potential interest. But so far, only limited applications of this technology—such as Nextel's Direct Connect (called "push to talk")—are available.

Some proposed solutions call for interesting technology innovations, others require development of a true VoIP wireless infrastructure. Based on a recent news report of an Aberdeen group study, the former may hold more promise for immediate functionality than the latter. That's because, according to senior Aberdeen Analyst Dana Tardelli, wireless carriers and device makers have yet to overcome the challenges or meet the opportunities that wireless VoIP poses. But if somebody like John Chambers (CEO of Cisco) sees a potential billion dollar-plus market in this space, you can certainly expect to see more investment here in the immediate future.

The kinds of technology innovations that may provide temporary relief in the interim, while necessary infrastructure and technology developments are underway, include various schemes for forwarding VoIP traffic to conventional cellular phones. Though this doesn't eliminate the need for conventional services or cellular phones, it does provide a stopgap solution that lets users tell others to call them on a desk phone or land line, yet still pick up and handle calls on their mobile phones. Various forms of call forwarding in VoIP systems already make this possible, and it adds a dimension of mobility worth using while conventional cellular phones remain the norm.

In the longer run, what's needed for the kind of infusion of handsets that adding VoIP mobile phones would cause—estimates based on current mobile phone numbers and adoption of VoIP make numbers in the hundreds of millions inevitable—are increased infrastructure bandwidth, support for third generation (3G) wireless telephony, and development of suitably equipped handsets. But indeed with these kinds of numbers easy to forecast, there's lots of impetus to move wireless telephony in this direction.

That probably explains why Nextel, Qualcomm, and Motorola have teamed up to push Direct Connect technology further, which will be based on Qualcomm's Qchat software. It also explains why giants like Verizon, Nokia, and AT&T are looking into various 3G packet radio and CDMA-based data-only technologies in the multi-megabit range. But with a more predictable and reliable (and quicker-to-market) wave of Wi-Fi enabled handsets already under development at most major players, the longer term move to true wireless cellular may be upstaged or delayed by easy access to VoIP services for those within range of a wireless hot spot.

Future options for wireless VoIP are interesting, and the opportunities pretty amazing. It will be fascinating to watch how these various technologies unfold, and which way the market moves in the next year or two.

Ed Tittel is a regular contributor to numerous TechTarget Web sites, and the author of over 100 books on a wide range of computing subjects from markup languages to information security. He's also a contributing editor for Certification Magazine, and edits Que Publising's Exam Cram 2 series of cert prep books. E-mail Ed at

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