Voice Over 802.11: Talkin' Loud; Sayin' Something?
I was surprised because vendors had told me privately that there isn’t any serious money in this market – at least not yet.
But faced with a room full of IT people asking question after question about converging voice over IP and wireless LAN, anybody would be forced to reconsider. So I spent a little time investigating the technology and the companies hard at work in this emerging market and produced an Unstrung Insider report entitled: Voice Over Wireless LAN: A Heavenly Union? (See Voice Over WLAN Ups Stakes.)
And what do I think now? Well to me, voice over wireless LAN (VOWLAN anyone?) is currently still more about vendor marketing than a serious proposition for most businesses. But longer term, the benefits of a converged voice and data 802.11 network are compelling.
Today, VOWLAN needs to overcome some enormous obstacles before it can be widely adopted in the enterprise. On the network side, standards for QOS, fast roaming, and authentication are required; on the device side, battery power, clunky-looking devices, and cellular handoff all need to be addressed. Then there are all those other niggly little issues to be solved – what codecs to use, integration with the PBX, making sure you have enough wireless coverage, and so on.
Yet there are companies – Symbol Technologies Inc. (NYSE: SBL), SpectraLink Corp., and Vocera Communications Inc. among them – that look to be doing okay in this business, albeit in the tried and tested healthcare vertical where VOWLAN already delivers a measurable ROI.
Likewise, a bunch of vendors say they've worked through a lot of technical problems. Airespace Inc., AirFlow Networks, Aruba Wireless Networks, Meru Networks Inc., Symbol Technologies Inc. (NYSE: SBL), Trapeze Networks Inc., and others all claim impressive feats of engineering such as sub-50ms handoff between access points and subnets with full authentication and encryption in place.
The catch here is that we’re mostly talking about vendor-specific solutions, when what the market ultimately wants are industry-wide standards and interoperability – hence all the talk about 802.11e QOS, 802.11i security, and a possible fast-roaming standard (see Meru Muddies 802.11e and SpectraLink Seeks New Standard).
Equally important is the uptake of voice-over-IP enterprise phone systems that, according to just about everybody, are about to overtake circuit-switched PBXs and become the default choice for enterprise telephone systems.
Most significant, however, is the weight that major silicon vendors like Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM), and Texas Instruments Inc. (NYSE: TXN), are putting behind low-power, small form-factor 802.11 chipsets for mobile handsets. And with Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK), Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT), and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. (Korea: SEC) on board, you’ve gotta agree: There’s serious momentum behind the hype.
Add to that the potential of the consumer 802.11 VOIP market, and what we’re really talking about when we say "voice over wireless LAN" is a mega-union of wireless LAN, mobile phones, mobile data, VOIP, enterprise networking, cellular carriers, consumer service providers, and component vendors – all dosed-up on unbounded enthusiasm and backed by massive investment.
— Gabriel Brown, Chief Analyst, Unstrung Insider