Voice Over Wi-Fi On the Way

BALTIMORE -- Wi-Fi, despite opposition from vendors of competing technologies, will grow and add new capabilities, with voice over Wi-Fi services available in about two years, according to speakers at this week's WiFi/VoWiFi Planet Conference and Expo.

Voice over Wi-Fi, also called VoWiFi, is a cousin to voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) service, and has some security and other challenges to fix. However, a few organizations in health care, education, and other industries are already experimenting with using Wi-Fi networks as the backbone of their phone systems, said Dave Danielson, vice president of marketing for Bluesocket, a Wi-Fi security vendor. While one analyst firm in 2003 forecast more than 500,000 voice over wireless LAN phones sold by 2006, that "hype" may not end up far from reality, Danielson said.

Danielson and Bill Gurley, a venture capitalist with Benchmark Capital, both said they expected voice over Wi-Fi to take off in about two years. Already, three major wireless phone makers have committed to making phones that can handle both traditional cellular calls and voice over Wi-Fi calls, Gurley said.

Some critics of Wi-Fi--or 802.11 wireless--have questioned its security and the range of transmitters, saying that its use is limited. But dozens of Wi-Fi security vendors have sprung up, many who continue to improve the range of Wi-Fi devices well beyond 150 feet (46 meters), a commonly accepted limit for an indoor wireless LAN.

People who still see Wi-Fi as a limited technology available in coffee shops have "blinders" on, Gurley said. "Everybody thinks of 802.11 as a coffee shop," he said. "The technologists around this room have this brain-dead idea that the platform is not going to evolve anymore."

The Upside

Although Wi-Fi and voice over Wi-Fi can have many of the same security problems as other IP devices, they can also benefit from some of the same solutions, added Danielson. The operating system market for mobile devices is more fractured than the Windows-dominated PC operating system market, he said, meaning malware writers can't hit as many devices with one virus.

But security vendors already offer products that scan devices as they connect to networks, and antivirus software for mobile devices is coming, Danielson said. "I think it's only a matter of time," he said of antivirus packages for mobile devices.

Gurley, whose firm has invested in large-scale Wi-Fi network vendor Tropos Networks, said the combination of broad coverage Wi-Fi networks and voice over Wi-Fi will free phone users from per-minute charges still common in cellular and fixed phone plans. "Imagine walking out of a building with a Wi-Fi phone and making free phone calls," he said.

While city-run Wi-Fi has run into opposition in Philadelphia and other cities, Tropos has close to 200 large-scale Wi-Fi clients worldwide, Gurley said.

Municipal Wi-Fi

In February, the New Millennium Research Council, a think tank funded by Verizon, SBC and other companies, released a study suggesting city-run wireless networks had several "grave flaws." Those flaws include tying up tax dollars in technology that could become outdated quickly; damage to commercial broadband vendors; a lack of evidence that city-run networks will create jobs or economic development; and a lack of evidence that residents will pay for the Wi-Fi service.

"(While) the intentions of city officials and administrators are admirable, the rollout of municipally held Wi-Fi networks will likely have a detrimental effect on city budgets and on competition in the telecommunications industry, and fail to produce the economic growth and jobs promised by municipal leaders," the authors said in that study.

Gurley noted that the U.S. has fallen to 16th place among nations in broadband penetration with the current crop of providers. "The thing that will get the incumbents off their butts to build better broadband is competition," he said.

One challenge for the Wi-Fi industry will be to ensure than related technologies such as the long-range WiMax wireless technology offers backwards compatibility, he said. Computer makers will have to include both Wi-Fi and WiMax devices in new laptops to avoid consumer confusion, he said.

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