RealTime IT News

The Roaming Plot Thickens

When heavy-hitters IBM , Intel , and AT&T announced last December they were ganging up to attack the red hot hotspot market with their joint venture Cometa Networks, small fry already in that field felt vindicated but also fearful -- even if they didn't admit it.

Now the same thing is happening again in a different little corner of the Wi-Fi world. Motorola , Avaya , and Proxim have announced they are jointly developing a solution to provide seamless roaming between cellular wide area and Wi-Fi local area networks -- mainly for voice applications.

Motorola and company may not be quite up to the blue chip standards of the Intel-IBM-AT&T nexus, but this is still a rich and powerful troika. Small fry in the cellular-WLAN roaming arena are right to wonder about what it all means. Ditto for players in the nascent in-building cellular market.

Motorola will develop multi-mode cellular/IP-voice-over-WLAN mobile phone sets, plus technology for handing off between wide and local area networks. Avaya will contribute IP PBX technology. Proxim will develop new access point and voice gateway technology based on it's recently announced Maestro architecture to enable secure, "toll-quality" IP voice over Wi-Fi networks. Between them they'll integrate it all into a complete solution.

If it occurs to you that a lot of the technology to do this already exists -- just as the technologies and business models for developing the hotspot market existed before Cometa -- you'd be right, of course.

Symbol Technologies and SpectraLink both have relatively mature IP voice over Wi-Fi solutions. Several companies have IP PBX offerings. A handful of companies have developed WAN-WLAN roaming technology. The question is, where does this announcement leave them?

Within hours of the Motorola group's announcement, we heard from one clearly nervous but also elated player -- Padcom of Bethlehem, PA, a start-up that has developed and implemented cellular-Wi-Fi roaming solutions in police departments across the U.S.

Padcom director of marketing and business planning Mark Ferguson insisted on putting a positive spin on this latest development in his company's very small niche market.

"It further validates the need for some kind of management of the platform as it moves between dissimilar networks," Ferguson said. "It also plays to the fact that we have product deployed and reference-able customers. It's nice to see now that other people recognize the need for what we've been doing."

Ferguson says the Motorola-Avaya-Proxim initiative is a golden opportunity, not a threat. Motorola needs to develop technology to manage hand-offs from WAN to WLAN, he points out. Oh, yeah -- Padcom already has patented technology to do this.

"We think we could possibly help Motorola by providing them with our software," he says. "We're trying to contact them to move down that path. We think we could offer them a nice piece to the puzzle."

Padcom technology has been successfully deployed in about 20 different places, mostly in public safety organizations but more recently in utility companies as well.

Police departments want cops in cruisers to be able to communicate data wherever they go. With the Padcom roaming and hand-off software loaded on a laptop and both Wi-Fi and cellular network interface cards installed, they can now seamlessly roam between a cellular network and a Wi-Fi hotspot set up at a police precinct.

It means the officers can download large files to their laptops -- mug shots, for example -- or upload reports when they pull into the precinct, without having to go right into the station house. The rest of the time they can use the wide area network -- CDPD, CDMA, GSM. The more time officers spend in their cruisers and the less time in the station house, the more productive they are.

The snag is, the Padcom solution is data centric, while the Motorola-Avaya-Proxim solution is meant to be voice centric. Plus, as Leigh Chinitz, chief technology officer in Proxim's LAN division, points out, there are other companies besides Padcom with data solutions, lots.

"There are well-established techniques for roaming data sessions between networks using standard protocols," notes Chinitz. That's not what Motorola et al need, however, or the market they're targeting.

The Motorola group needs to develop technology that will allow fast, reliable, secure hand-offs between cellular and Wi-Fi IP voice networks, resulting in no loss of voice packets. That's a bigger challenge than managing hand-offs between dissimilar networks in data applications. Data packets can always be re-sent, but voice packets can't.

This is not to say that core technology from Padcom or another company couldn't be the basis for the kind of solution Motorola and its partners are seeking. That solution will also support data, Chinitz notes -- though he's a little vague about how. It's just that Proxim, et al., definitely see the main application as voice.

"We're focused on voice not because we believe there is a need only for mobile voice," he says. "But this [i.e. voice] is an area that has not been addressed by broad standards, and it has great applicability."

The initial pitch will be to enterprises that are already considering a voice-over-wired-IP-network solution and already have or are considering implementing a Wi-Fi LAN -- which is quite a few. The claimed benefits of IP voice are well documented, if debatable according to some -- primarily reduced total cost of ownership as a result of reduced time and effort for adds, moves and changes.

"With an IP network it's easier to pick up and move," Chinitz says. "And when it's wireless it's easier still. We're saying, 'If you're already going to have a Wi-Fi LAN, why have another wireless infrastructure as well to either send cellular coverage indoors, or do some kind of cordless telephony in the office?'"

Another part of the value proposition is that enterprises can increase worker productivity by consolidating devices -- one mobile phone for everywhere. Furthermore, workers using a multi-mode phone will stop paying for expensive cellular minutes when they roam on to the office WLAN -- or in to a Wi-Fi hotspot.

If the Motorola group doesn't represent a direct threat to companies like Padcom, it certainly is a threat to companies developing and marketing in-building cellular coverage solutions, firms such as InnerWireless.

Padcom, meanwhile, is of two minds about whether to further develop its technology to encompass voice devices -- and thus enter the same arena as the Motorola group. "It's not in the picture," says Ferguson -- but Chris Bogdon, the company's chief technical strategist, isn't so categorical.

"It's not on the schedule for the short term," Bogdon says. "But in light of the announcement from Motorola, Avaya and Proxim, it could be a good play for us. The company is looking at it at this point as a long-term goal."

That's if it can't get Motorola interested in buying its patented switching technology. If it can't, there is another strategy as well: form a competitive joint venture. "If you look at the direct competition in each [Motorola] partner's space, that would be the perfect company for us to go to [with a] joint venture proposal," Bogdon suggests.

Padcom, or any other competitor that already has some of the pieces for this kind of solution, has some time. Nobody else has announced plans to build anything like it, Chinitz says. On the other hand, it's not as if the Motorola group has a huge head start. It won't even begin customer trials until the second half of this year.

In fact, it's almost as if the announcement from the Motorola Group -- and maybe the one from Intel, IBM and AT&T too, come to think of it -- is more an exercise in psyching out potential competitors.