VoWLAN for Survival

Recently, an Ipsos-Reid survey of Canadians showed that in the world of everyday people on the street, the term VoIP — voice over Internet Protocol, arguably the biggest buzz going in information technology these days — is practically unknown. Only 23% of the population had even heard of it.

But that doesn’t matter to the people who make Wi-Fi equipment, especially those heavy in the corporate wireless LAN infrastructure side. Phil Solis, senior analyst at ABI Research, says the WLAN switch market is so extremely tight right now that focusing on voice over Wi-Fi can give vendors a competitive edge.

ABI released a report last week entitled “Voice over Wi-Fi: Client Devices, Forecasts, and Network Design Issues.” The report looks at today’s voice over Wi-Fi (AKA VoWLAN) solutions and the markets they serve, focusing on the new opportunities presented for both wireless LAN switch vendors and Wi-Fi IC (integrated chip) makers.

“Companies have differentiated themselves with solutions for managing spectrum, security, users, rogue access points, etc.–and now they’re starting to position themselves as a voice over Wi-Fi platform,” says Solis.

While VoWLAN had traditionally been focused on niche markets like healthcare and manufacturing, Solis says it’s starting to make its way into the broader corporate market–particularly with the promise of dual mode cellular/voice over Wi-Fi handsets, which are expected to come to market by the end of the year. “There’s an opportunity for wireless LAN switch vendors to get in on the action there,” he says.

Over time, Solis says, voice over Wi-Fi will eventually head into the consumer market, with consumers using cell phones on their home Wi-Fi networks. “There are so many cell phones out there that even with a small penetration of Wi-Fi into those cell phones, that’s a lot of users,” he says. “So that really expands the market.”

For VoWLAN handsets, wireless LAN switches can actively improve performance. “If the switch sees that a client is getting a weaker signal, it can see which access points are gaining in signal strength, and then it can pre-authenticate the handoff,” Solis says. “It can save time by starting the handoff process earlier so it can switch over to the next access point faster, more easily, and with less latency.”

Similarly, Wi-Fi silicon designers and manufacturers face a key opportunity–and a key challenge–in providing chips for VoWLAN handsets. “With voice over Wi-Fi handsets, typical battery life is maybe three to five hours,” Solis says. “If someone’s really busy and they’re using it all day, they’re going to need advances in the technology to ensure the lowest power consumption possible.”

Minimizing power consumption is key, but size is crucial as well. “The market has already moved towards two-chip chipsets and single-chip chipsets, but that becomes more important in smaller mobile devices,” Solis says. “The smaller you can make it, the better. There’s only a certain amount of circuit board real estate that you want to take up, so keeping that part of it as small as possible is important.”

For Wi-Fi integrated circuit (IC) vendors, the race is already on to see who can make the smallest, most efficient chips. “Broadcom and Atheros are companies that have good technology–and then other companies like Texas Instruments and Philips are developing better ICs as well,” Solis says. “So there’s pretty stiff competition there.”

Finally, Solis adds, a single standard is emerging as well: VoWLAN in the enterprise market will specifically require the use of 802.11a, not 802.11b or 802.11g — especially if the deal between Avaya, Motorola, and Proxim becomes a market leader — the three intend to specify 802.11a for use with their voice system.

“With 802.11a, the range is shorter–and that’s generally viewed as a bad thing,” he says. “But it turns out that having a shorter range is better. Not only will you have less interference, but the smaller range means you can pack them in more densely.”

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