Symbol Talks Up Voice Over 802.11

Symbol Technologies Inc. has been granted a patent for technology that enables users to make voice calls over 802.11 wireless LAN (WLAN) networks.

Symbol aims to develop systems that enable users of its wireless LANs to make voice calls to other people on the network or on the corporate PBX. This brings to mind another possibility: Couldn't the technology be applicable to the public WiFi hotspot market, wherein users could "beam in" to public 802.11 access points and make cheaper wireless calls over WLAN networks? Yes, it's possible, in theory. But many issues, such as billing and handoff, abound. And Symbol doesn't appear to be eager to plunge into this market.

Symbol is one of the leading companies involved in implementing wireless LAN hardware and software for manufacturing, healthcare, education, and government customers. It is one of the few companies that make voice over IP (VOIP) handsets as well as rugged handhelds for industrial applications (the only Palms with stubble!).

Symbol has been awarded the patent for handling enterprise telephony voice communications and PBX capabilities (voice messaging, caller ID, call forwarding, call transfer, call waiting, etc.) over 802.11 wireless LANs. The firm has also helped to develop quality of service (QOS) techniques for the 802.11 specification, which prioritizes voice over data packets. This will be part of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE)’s 802.11e 5GHz wireless LAN specification.

The patented technology is already being used in Symbol’s NetVision handsets, which will currently run you around $500. BJ’s Wholesale Club is the first announced customer for the new phones.

Cahners-In-Stat/MDR has recently predicted that additional demand from verticals will help the overall voice-over-wireless-LAN market expand to over 80,000 handset shipments in 2002, up from the 20,000 shipments in 2001. They also expect that annual shipments of so-called “voice over 802.11x” handsets will surpass half a million units by 2006, accounting for revenues of more than a quarter of a million dollars per year.

Surely though, Unstrung wondered aloud, don't battery-powered 802.11b phones have one serious drawback? The specification is known for being power hungry, even when used with devices like laptops -- it’ll decimate a phone battery.

Not so, Symbol says. Ray Martino, VP of wireless networking products for the company, says that the new phones give about an hour and a half of talk time and several days of standby.

The secret, Martino says, is better engineering. Most WLAN cards are designed for laptops with an eye on cost rather than power consumption. “Basically, they’re designed to be cheap."

In fact, Martino reckons that Symbol’s IP phones will soon have better power consumption performance than normal mobile phones. “In a year or so, we think we can get them much better than [cellphones],” he says. So, Unstrung wondered (again), with that in mind, wouldn’t it soon be possible to route (hopefully, cheaper) phone calls over public access WLAN hotspots, at least on the device side? “Voice would be a great addition to the hotspot market,” Martino agreed.

However, this is not a market that Symbol is keen to pioneer. “We’re not a public telephone company,” Martino says. In essence, developing consumer WLAN phones would need handset manufacturers to develop dual-mode WLAN/WAN phones and infrastructure that could link hotspots to current cellular networks. This is at the basest level, ignoring all the other stuff about standards, access controls, and billing (watch this space for more on these issues).

And despite Symbol’s desire not to manufacture consumer WLAN phones, it could be involved in any effort to develop them. “If there was a carrier that wanted to bring this forward we could be around to help,” Martino offered.

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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