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Developers Speak Out on the Future of Wireless VoIP

When Qualcomm last week announced it was bringing voice-over-IP (VoIP) service to CDMA customers, the news was the latest milestone in a technology set to turn upside down the entire wireless industry. If the analog telephone rang in a new way of person-to-person communications and cell phones marked the age of mobile talk, VoIP ushers in digital, Internet-based global wireless telephony.

Until recently, VoIP meant using a Web-based service requiring you be tied to a desktop computer and suffer inferior quality audio with little application beyond the home consumer. Today, every major wireless carrier is involved in VoIP projects, quality has improved and most importantly corporations have become interested -- very interested -- in VoIP.

The basic difference between traditional analog telephone calls and calls made with VoIP is the way your voice is transmitted. When you call a friend in New York, a dedicated circuit is reserved for your conversation. With VoIP, your voice is cut into multiple packets, takes the most efficient path along the Internet and is then reassembled when it reaches your friend. Analysts predict within five years, 75 percent of voice calls will use VoIP.

For wireless VoIP to work requires either packet-based 2.5G or 3G networks, which is what Qualcomm's QChat technology will use. The other option is 802.11 WLAN and is where the real excitement over VoIP lies. Wireless market analysts at Frost & Sullivan say VoIP will drive the WLAN market from $217 million in 2000 to $558 million by 2007. Why? Corporations see VoIP recouping the costs spent integrating WLANs into business networks.

Where are the cost savings? A company can save the up to $300 or so it costs to install a new extension. VoIP are the ultimate in plug-and-play. Another advantage businesses see is the ability to combine their voice and data networks, according to Frost & Sullivan.

The prime advantage is the ability for a remote worker to enter his three-digit extension, pass through the office PBX and have immediate contact with his co-workers. No downed lines, no busy circuits, just a direct connection. Analysts see the uses for VoIP expanding to almost every sector where instant communications is required. How will this effect the wireless industry, which is supposed to be the technology supplanting wired phones?

Although base stations made up nearly 98% of the wireless market in 1998, Frost & Sullivan sees that market share falling to just 53% by 2007 as VoIP takes 47% of the wireless enterprise market.

CellularLD is a service from Brookline, Mass.-based Moltium Ltd., which has been described as the "10-10-321 of wireless." The service allows cell phone users to "dial around" long-distance providers and their wireless carriers to use VoIP, resulting in less expensive calls. CellularLD is available in California, North Carolina, Nevada and along the East Coast.

Another example of wireless VoIP in place is at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff where faculty and students use SpectraLink's NetLink IP Phones over the campus 802.11b network.

Since 2000, Pocket PC users have been able to use BSquare's bInTouch software to hold real time VoIP conversation with sound quality comparable to a mobile phone, according to the company.

Also, Nokia and BT tested VoIP in the UK during 2001.

Frost & Sullivan said along with a cost difference between VoIP and traditional phone service, packet-based calling remains below the public radar. The latter factor is certain to change.