Enterprise Wi-Fi: It's time to grow up

A look at voice over Wi-Fi (VoWi-Fi) certifications, devices and services.

What's happening?

Cisco, Motorola, RIM and SBC are among the vendors and service providers that have announced voice over Wi-Fi (VoWi-Fi) devices and services. The good news is that the Wi-Fi Alliance has started a multimedia certification program that acknowledges that Wi-Fi is being used for voice and other content instead of just data. The bad news is that Wi-Fi is suffering from an identity crisis.

Our Conclusions

Today, from an user's viewpoint, Wi-Fi has become a complex and ambiguous potpourri of certifications. It has evolved from humble roots in interoperability and performance compliance to an irritating, unnecessary alphabet soup of standards. Some IT managers and CIO's we've talked to even describe Wi-Fi as too "consumerish."

With the advent of VoWi-Fi, quality-of-service (QoS) mechanisms and greater throughput, we believe that Wi-Fi has reached the point where it should be redefined, with a new name -– we suggest "Wi-Fi E," and a performance benchmark that reflects enterprise requirements. Wi-Fi E would specify:

  • 802.11a/n, yet require VoWi-Fi only at 5.7 GHz
  • WPA1 or better security (802.11i)
  • Wi-Fi Multimedia (WMM) or better (802.11e) for QoS
  • In-band roaming performance requirements (hand-off speeds ~<10ms, session and device persistence and security are examples

Although VoWi-Fi eventually will be a viable option for many enterprise and consumer applications, it's currently passing through a trough of disillusionment. This let-down is driven by the hodge-podge of standards and the variety of proprietary products that are, at best, semi-useful niche plays, especially those operating in the interference-prone 2.4 GHz band (802.11b). Despite growing demand for VoWi-Fi, enterprise-class, 100%-interoperabile systems will remain elusive through at least YE05.

Action

Many existing and forthcoming VoWi-Fi devices – such as the BlackBerry 7270 -– leverage enterprise 802.11b deployments by piggybacking voice on the wireless LAN. Even in its adolescence, VoWi-Fi is too big for a piggyback ride as an enterprise-class solution.

Enterprises with specific, niche requirements for VoWi-Fi –- such as warehouses and hospitals -– are well advised to consider deploying VoWi-Fi solutions that use 802.11a, which uses less-congested spectrum (5 GHz) while providing more channels than 802.11b/g. Enterprises that don't have immediate VoWi-Fi plans should exercise a grow-into-strategy by curtailing plain-vanilla 802.11b investments in favor of new Wi-Fi standards that will provide superior voice and data capabilities.

Discussion

The Wi-Fi Alliance has done a good job making sure that products work at the basic access level. It has also done a fair job responding to the security panic with WPA, an early release of 802.11i. Yet the Alliance has dropped the ball in other places. Wi-Fi compliance used to be synonymous with simplicity, multi-vendor interoperability and a basic level of performance. Now Wi-Fi is in the midst of an identity crisis, with a potpourri of specifications that include a/b, a/b/g, a/g, WPA, WPA2 and n, to name just a few. This isn't exactly an ideal situation for CIOs and IT managers looking for enterprise-class Wi-Fi products, especially if they plan to deploy voice, which has its own unique needs.

VoWi-Fi is every bit the adolescent: awkward and in need of guidance in order to live up to its potential. For VoWi-Fi to mature into a viable enterprise service, vendors and service providers must recognize that it's going to take a village to raise this child. We believe that it's time that the village elders -- the Wi-Fi Alliance -- take a firm hand with the rest of the villagers and straighten out this kid rather than just sending him -- unprepared and amateurish -- into the workforce…



Bob Egan is president and CEO of Mobile Competency, a Providence, R.I.-based market analyst and consultancy. He can be contacted at  bob@mobilecompetency.com or via phone at 401-241-4000.

This was first published in October 2004

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