It looks as if the evolution of voice over Wi-Fi will closely parallel the evolution of wired voice over IP, only in a compressed time frame.
VoIP started with much scoffed at soft phones that Internet geeks played with but businesses avoided like the plague. That technology introduced a whole new vocabulary — latency, jitter, packet loss — to describe all the things that could go wrong on a VoIP phone call.
Then start-up IP PBX vendors began to appear with enterprise-class solutions that claimed to have solved these problems. Finally, network and PBX giants like Cisco, Avaya and Nortel got into the act. Now of course, IP voice is the wave of the future in enterprise telephony. More recently, companies like Vonage have even made voice over the public Internet respectable.
TeleSym , a three-year-old start-up, hopes to do for voice over Wi-Fi what those early start-up IP PBX vendors did for wired VoIP. It has developed a system that offers “Mobile VoIP for the Enterprise.” The system includes innovative client software that works on laptops and PDAs, plus IP voice servers and “connectors” that allow the VoWi-Fi system to interoperate with various PBXs (conventional and IP) and SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) and H.323 servers.
A TeleSym system allows employees carrying wirelessly-enabled laptops or PDAs — and eventually dual-mode Wi-Fi/cell phones — to connect from wherever they can get Wi-Fi coverage, including in the office using existing WLAN infrastructure, and at hotspots or on a home Wi-Fi network using a VPN connection. Once connected, they can securely make and take phone calls as if they were in the office. Voice and call connection quality are superior to any competing solution, the company claims.
TeleSym announced its first deployment last year at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where students, staff and faculty use the technology for local IP-to-IP and IP- to-PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) calls. More recently it announced that service provider Ecuity Advanced Communications had adopted the TeleSym technology and would use it to sell mobile VoIP service to its small-medium enterprise customers.
TeleSym director of marketing Mike Houston says the market for products like his company’s SymPhone suite is set to grow rapidly. According to one unattributed market report Houston cites, more than 200 million Wi-Fi-capable handsets will be in the market by 2008. That’s still small potatoes compared to the 800 million cell phones predicted for 2008. “But if someone told you several years back that 200 million cell phones would have been sold by such and such a year, you’d have said, ‘What a great year for cellular,'” Houston points out.
TeleSym has more than 15 pilot trials underway and expects to convert most of them to full-scale deployments. The company is currently in the throes of developing its 2005 business plan so Houston was unwilling to predict the number of implementations it might have completed by the end of next year — other than to say it would be “multiples” of the current 15-plus.
Most of the pilots are with enterprise customers. TeleSym is targeting a few key verticals and horizontals — higher education, retail, warehousing, logistics and distribution, plus enterprises with “very highly mobile professionals.” However, a couple of the current pilots are service providers and now with Ecuity using the technology, Houston expects the carrier market to grow in importance.
“We’re predominantly marketing to enterprises,” he says. “But we do have a fair amount of inbound interest from service providers. It’s just that right now we’re spread a little thin to be able to make it all happen at once. We’re seeing a tremendous amount of competitive urgency among service providers, so we might have a slightly different story to tell [about the customer mix] in the next 60 to 90 days.”
There are competing solutions. The major IP PBX vendors, the Ciscos and Nortels, all have voice over Wi-Fi offerings. “Sometimes we go head to head,” Houston says. “And if the customer opts for a single-vendor solution, yep, we lose out.”
However, unlike the TeleSym technology, the IP PBX vendor solutions do not work well in environments with multiple PBX platforms. TeleSym’s systems can interoperate with multiple different PBX brands and models in the same implementation.
TeleSym also claims an advantage in the level of security in place for calls over Wi-Fi. It uses Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) certificate technology from RSA Security to deliver what it says is the highest level of trust and security of any mobile VoIP solution.
“We didn’t think this up on our own,” Houston admits. “From working on a lot of pilots and talking to customers we learned that most would never deploy VoIP at the edge unless it had solid security. That led us to the RSA solution.” It was also from working with pilot customers that TeleSym realized it would need to offer interoperability with multiple PBX platforms.
In addition to the IP PBX vendors, the company has competitors such as SJ Labs which like TeleSym offers a SIP-based VoWi-Fi client for laptops and PDAs. Those products cannot compete on call and connection quality, though, Houston claims.
Another key technology differentiator is TeleSym’s “quality at the Edge” approach to ensuring carrier class call quality. While a TeleSym system will work with existing network QoS (Quality of Service) technologies, most of the technological innovation that allows the company to claim superior call and connection quality is in the client, Houston explains.
“We believe that from a [network] architectural and business case point of view, you can’t adequately manage [VoIP] quality at the network core alone,” he says.
The claims for superior quality are mainly around the system’s ability to maintain a viable call in the presence of a poor network connection. For example, TeleSym can maintain a call with as much as 400 milliseconds (ms) of jitter or choppy audio resulting from voice packets arriving out of order. Most VoIP systems drop the call at about 250 milliseconds, Houston says.
The TeleSym technology can also maintain a viable call with up to 40, or in some cases 50 percent packet loss by interpolating packets based on those before and after the lost packets. Most VoIP systems lose the call with as little as 5 percent packet loss, Houston says.
“This is in situations where you have bursty bad behavior on the network,” he explains. “If you maintained the connection for long with that quality, obviously it would eventually not be a very pleasant conversation. You deal with the exceptions as best you can — then you get out of the way once the [connection] quality is back. We only introduce our special algorithms when network conditions are poor.”
Being able to maintain call connections is essential for VoWi-Fi systems because callers will inevitably wander into areas where coverage is poor. Because many current VoWi-Fi solutions, including the new Wi-Fi SIP phones, can’t match TeleSym’s ability to keep calls going in poor network conditions, they will ultimately not be successful, Houston suggests.
“If the phone loses the call one out of four times, it becomes an unusable device,” he contends. “And most SIP phones fail at around 15 percent packet loss.”
TeleSym may well have innovative and superior technology for making voice over Wi-Fi work in the enterprise, and it has reasonable funding to date — about $18 million — but it will need more by mid-2005 in order to proceed, Houston admits. The question is whether TeleSym can survive and thrive as a VoWi-Fi only vendor, or whether one of the big players buys it or eventually wipes out its technological head start.