Everyone Fear Non-Existent Wireless VoIP
By Mike Masnick, Thu Mar 24 02:30:00 GMT 2005

You can't really go a month in the wireless world without hearing of the next big "threat" to some wireless technology. This month it's wireless VoIP that's going to take down just about everything else in the wireless space. That might be a tad optimistic.

There's just something about vaporware that makes people assume it's going to be a whole lot more than it actually will be. That's why there are always predictions about some non-existent technology "killing off" some very much existing technology. While it's a nice thought, it's usually not that easy. An existing technology isn't always easy to knock off its pedestal, and the ecosystem of support that it's built up tends to fight back against obsolescence. Furthermore, most of the technologies that are supposed to be "dead" have time to adjust before the new technology actually shows up. Meanwhile, the new technology actually has to come to market and work -- a challenge in its own way.

However, the latest such technology that's getting all the hype is "wireless VoIP" which seems to be a slight extension on the earlier concept of VoIP over Wi-Fi (VoWi-Fi). With wireless VoIP, that wireless connection can be anything from Wi-Fi to WiMAX (when that exists, too) to 3G technologies and plenty of others in between. However, the list of what wireless VoIP is suddenly expected to kill keeps getting longer. First, it's going to destroy 3G offerings. Then, apparently, wireless VoIP will move on to kill Bluetooth, which appears to be quite the apples vs. oranges comparison. Still, it's only fitting for Bluetooth, which is a technology that appears to have become the Kenny from South Park of the wireless industry -- killed every week, only to reappear looking healthy the following week.

The problem is that most of this ignores reality. Looking at early wireless VoIP offerings demonstrates some of the problems. First, there's the problem of the wireless offering. Without widespread wireless broadband, it's difficult to see how wireless VoIP matches the mobility aspect of cellular phones. Then, in places where wireless broadband does exist, right now it's under the control of mobile operators who are going to make it as difficult as possible for people to offer wireless VoIP initially -- to be followed by co-opting wireless VoIP themselves.

There are some cases of companies offering independent wireless broadband, where there's more of a chance for wireless VoIP, but even then there are limitations. US Wireless, for example, just announced it will offer wireless VoIP over pre-WiMAX at some point soon. Of course, pre-WiMAX (and early WiMAX) won't be mobile, so it will simply be a stationary solution. That's not much of a threat to 3G cellular voice (nor Bluetooth, for that matter). Other companies are testing other mobile broadband technologies, such as FLASH-OFDM and UMTS-TDD (which talks up the ability to use VoIP). However, those will still be limited coverage areas. To get national coverage, there are still spectrum issues, and the only firms likely to take that on in the near future are the mobile operators themselves who are supposedly at so much risk.

Eventually, wireless VoIP is likely to be the technology of choice for doing voice communications. However, positioning it as a threat to existing wireless technologies isn't really accurate. It's more likely to be an evolution from existing technologies. It may allow for some new entrants, but it's unlikely to create the sort of battle some of these analysts appear to be predicting.