VoWLANs Go to Work
By Kevin Werbach, Thu Jun 17 15:30:00 GMT 2004

Two of the most exciting developments in communications technology are coming together, and business may never be the same.

Voice over IP (VoIP) is taking the telecom world by storm, forcing carriers to rethink their business models and giving customers new options. Meanwhile, Wi-Fi hotspots are sprouting up by the thousands, bringing wireless data connectivity to every office, street corner, café and hotel. Put these trends together, and the result is something so new that it doesn’t have a common name. I’m partial to VoWLAN, for voice over wireless local area network.

A VoWLAN system lets users engage in voice communications through Wi-Fi-equipped handsets, PDAs, laptops or special-purpose portable devices. Vendors are working on at least a dozen voice over Wi-Fi phones for shipment this year, and the leading VoIP startups such as Skype and Vonage are now offering “softphone” clients that turn any laptop or PDA into a voice endpoint.

The transformative element of VoWLAN, like all VoIP, can be expressed in four words: voice as an application. Traditional voice networks are fixed: they deliver a specific service, in a specific way. Any new functionality, from voicemail to text messaging to multi-party calling, requires significant and specific investment. IP networks, on the other hand, let the endpoints of the network define functionality. Anything that talks a common protocol can be integrated or modified to suit user needs, without having to swap out the entire network infrastructure. As a result, voice-based services can now be incorporated into any device capable of handling wireless LAN connections.

Disruption Ahead

Wireline VoIP is most disruptive for residential service, where there has traditionally been no competition for incumbent carriers. VoWLAN, however, will have their greatest impact in the workplace. High-speed data networks are already pervasive in businesses, making the incremental cost miniscule. A VoWLAN system in a company eliminates both the redundant cost of parallel voice and data wireline networks, and the premium costs of cellular service. Why pay high wide-area wireless rates when the only wireless element is a few feet over a free connection from a hotspot to a handset?

Ultimately, though, cost savings aren’t the most important aspect of VoWLANs. The combination of VoIP and Wi-Fi will change the nature of business communication, by eliminating the artificial boundaries of the office.

By analogy, think about why mobile phones are valuable in a work context. It’s not the ability to receive a call when you’re sitting at your desk -- the wired phone does that perfectly well, in fact, better than a mobile handset. The power of a mobile phone is that it provides for connections wherever you work. Not where your name is on a plaque on the door, but wherever and whenever you actually do business -- in the car, on business travel or at the client’s site. This ability to communicate from anywhere to anywhere is essential in today’s increasingly global, connected, always-on world.

Nonetheless, there are some places mobile phones don’t go. And there are many situations in which the handset takes you away from your work context. VoWLANs allow mobile communications devices to reach their full potential in business.

Paging Dr. Wireless

Consider the circumstances in hospitals. Mobile phones are often banned because of concerns about interference with medical equipment. Even when they aren’t, harried nurses and doctors rarely have the time to track down and dial a phone number. Paging over the public address system just adds more latency. A common task like finding an available specialist is a frustrating, time-consuming process, in an environment where time can mean the difference between life and death.

Vocera, a VoWLAN startup, sells a software and hardware solution that addresses this market need and similar situations in other industries. Vocera makes small voice “badges” that workers clip onto their shirts. The badges, which incorporate a digital signal processor and a voice encoder, have a single “call” button, which ties into a server-based speech recognition system. The call is routed automatically to the appropriate person, either to their own badge or to another endpoint.

Vocera’s solution provides a hint of why VoWLANs are so exciting. Because they treat voice as just data riding a common data infrastructure, they make it far easier to integrate voice communications with other resources and tools that are already part of that infrastructure. Companies such as Cisco and Avaya are rapidly selling IP PBX equipment that bridges corporate phone and data networks. Even without such deep convergence, VoWLANs can easily integrate with existing corporate directories, and with other forms of media such as video.

A few scenarios should illustrate why this is so valuable. A sales rep going through a presentation at a client site could pull a product manager into the conversation with one click, though the same laptop she’s using for the presentation. A retail employee could call the distribution center directly from the shop floor, and patch directly into the voice-enabled supply-chain management application to find out when the next shipment of a product is coming in. A real estate broker could snap a picture of a home with her cameraphone and immediately begin discussing its attributes with her client. Or a manager reviewing a spreadsheet from his hotel room thousands of miles from home could instantly bring together a team of employees for a conference call to discuss his meeting the next day.

Integration and Interoperability

The basic elements of all these scenarios exist today, however, they are poorly integrated and expensive. Just as many observers initially dismissed mobile phones because payphones already provided the opportunity to connect on the road, people will undoubtedly fail to appreciate the significance of VoWLANs early on. The fact of the matter is that work today in much of the world is an inherently distributed activity involving shifting groups of people, types of information and organizations. Only a common decentralized communications infrastructure can meet those needs.

VoWLANs are still in their infancy. And there are still significant quality of service, interoperability, security and integration hurdles to overcome. Nonetheless, the technology is maturing and is poised for explosive growth. When enterprises like Dartmouth University and the US Department of Commerce make the switch to VoIP, they instantly create thousands of potential VoWLAN users.

Vendors are assembling partnerships to address the major limitations of today’s systems. For example, Aruba Networks, an enterprise Wi-Fi security and management vendor, recently inked a deal with SpectraLink, Telesym and Vocera to deliver scalable integrated voice-over-Wi-Fi solutions spanning IP phones, softphones, and voice badges. This is yet another example of the benefits of a common data infrastructure, which makes it easy to piece together different elements into a seamless whole.

So get ready. Your next business phone may be your laptop.