FEATURE: Wireless VoIP's Perfect Storm

Wireless VoIP's Perfect Storm
Meru's Ben Gibson argues that wireless VoIP will help drive the adoption of WiFi for the enterprise market.

Enterprise adoption of WLANs has been held in check for years, but recently we have observed the makings of a wireless "perfect storm" coming together that would clear the way for their adoption: 1) Voice over IP (VoIP) lines are outpacing traditional phone lines in enterprises; 2) WiFi is being built into all clients -- thanks to players like Intel; 3) Wireless VoIP handsets prices are coming down; and 4) Economic rebound has demonstrated the importance of productivity-improving technologies.

As a natural extension to wired VoIP, wireless VoIP is gaining the greatest mindshare of all the possible applications that can be unwired. Why is that? Well, past justification for wireless LANs only looked at soft improvement indirectly derived from the implementation of a wireless LAN: the ability to maintain connectivity while in a meeting, for example. Being able to reference documents on the Web or via email while sitting in a meeting can be deemed productivity improving. There are may other examples, but, in general, they are all difficult to tie to specific savings for corporations.

VoIP is different. VoIP on the wired network brings the obvious improvement on converging two networks into a single network and creates real, measurable return on investment (ROI). The same is true if VoIP is extended to the WLAN. Wireless VoIP presents real, demonstrable ROI, which in a post-bubble economy is the only way to speed adoption. For example: Cellular phone calls made within the same campus comprise between 30 percent and 50 percent of the total cellular bill. We've all done it. "Where is Bob? He's late for the meeting. Let me call his cell and get him down here." Implementing wireless VoIP allows people to carry their desk phones with them eliminating the cellular phone call. Moves, adds, and change administration is also reduced. These examples all demonstrate very real, "hard" ROI that just greases the skids for the economic buyer in a corporation.

This converged wireless adoption, of course, is dependent on the adoption of VoIP within enterprises. The natural next question is: how is that going? According to In-Stat, enterprise IP telephone line deployment increased 60 percent in 2002 and is expected to continue this meteoric growth. It's hard to argue against a trend like that.

As with most widely adopted technology, standardization of communication protocols for wireless networks is driving down the cost of clients. Thanks to integration efforts of Intel and other processor companies, groups like the WiFi Alliance and IEEE, and cooperation of vendors to implement wireless standards, wireless data clients enter a corporation for free by being included with each device. While WiFi VoIP handsets today are locked in to a $500 to $600 range, the economic force of standardization can't be denied forever. In fact, there are a bevy of WiFi VoIP handsets being developed on both sides of the Pacific that are aiming to drive that cost down using standard chips. Battery saving announcements from chip vendors and WLAN equipment vendors will make the WiFi VoIP handset in the $200 to $300 range a very real, usable technology. With wired and wireless VoIP phones at a comparable price, corporations will soon choose phones the way you do at home -- corded or cordless? What choice will they make? Well, how many corded phones do you have at home?

The fourth element of the "perfect storm" for WLAN adoption is actually a very rare macroeconomic phenomenon -- a "jobless" economic recovery. There is a fundamental shift in the thinking of corporations. Wall Street is demanding increased revenues, earnings, etc., without adding significant overhead. The ability of newer technologies to deliver improved productivity has allowed corporations to improve numbers without adding jobs. There are limits to this, but the resulting productivity improvements provided by technology are not lost on corporations. Wireless networking, particularly wireless VoIP, has both hard ROI for short-term improvements on the books as well as soft ROI in terms of the great promise productivity improvements through mobility at work. The realization that productivity-improving technology can get companies through a downturn in the economy is rare and forms the final factor in the converged wireless "perfect storm."

Since extending VoIP to a converged WLAN is the natural next step to any VoIP deployment, many are now looking at how to build a standards-based, enterprise-grade WLAN for both voice and high-user-density data. But getting to the sort of user density that large enterprises will expect for pervasive WLAN deployments, and running voice across the same enterprise wireless network, is not easy over traditional systems designed for basic data connectivity. Nonetheless, such a network is possible.

Because of its "ethernet hub-like" behavior, a typical WiFi access point can support between 10 and 20 connections, a number easily exceeded in high-density areas. For example, an access point that serves a radius of 50 feet covers an area of 7,800 sq.ft., and if there are more than 20 active contenders it may exceed the recommended ratings for the system to achieve higher density.

By its very nature, voice is creates two problems in this scenario. First, pervasive wireless voice deployment will dramatically increase client density because every enterprise user will carry an always-on device. Second, voice is a demanding application with respect to missed or delayed packets. Specifically, to bring voice and data together in the enterprise, wireless network traffic needs predictable throughput, low loss and no disruption of service while roaming. For its part, voice traffic needs the wireless network to provide low latency and low jitter in order to deliver "toll-quality" voice end-to-end.

It turns out that the requirements for both data and voice can be satisfied adequately without requiring any changes to the ubiquitous WiFi supported in clients today. Instead, the requirements can be met through innovation in both algorithms and architecture in the WLAN infrastructure. These types of innovations in wireless network predictability can make toll-quality voice a reality.

Just as with cellular networks, the actual control of who transmits and who doesn't is what gives the network robustness and scalability. The network itself governs the client access to the communication channel. This same philosophy must be applied to a converged wireless LAN to create true toll-quality voice at a scale large enough to make it usable for large enterprises.

Ben Gibson is VP of Corporate Marketing for Meru Networks. He is one of many speakers at wVoIP 2005, an exclusive executive summit dedicated to the convergence of wireless and VoIP. To learn more about wVoIP 2005 visit: www.wvoip.com.