SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The next big use for wireless LANs may not be more hot spots or video, but rather plain old voice calling, said a panel at the Pulver.com Wireless Internet Summit.
Ben Guderian, director of marketing for Boulder, Colo.-based SpectraLink Corp., said that the one place where mobile phone call reception remains a problem is inside corporate walls. Cell phones provide reasonable coverage on the move outside of the office, but if someone is away from his desk while at work -- or doesn't have a desk -- and still needs to communicate, it is often difficult to get a clear signal.
Wi-Fi networks provide a great opportunity to provide workers with reliable, mobile voice service, Guderian said.
In a small office, a company may decide to use a wireless network instead of a wired network, in which case adding voice capabilities to the network can help boost savings, Guderian said.
Brent Lang, vice president of marketing for Cupertino, Calif.-based Vocera Communications Inc., said that because cell phone coverage is poor inside buildings, or prohibited in certain environments, such as hospitals, voice over Wi-Fi offers some businesses great advantages.
Vocera's product is a small device that can clip onto a user's shirt, enabling that person to take calls without having to use their hands. That can allow employees to continue to work with their hands while talking. The device also takes advantage of its network connection by allowing users to access databases of information.
For example, he said, in a hospital, a nurse may need to find the nearest anesthesiologist. Instead of going to a nurse's station to check a computer, or paging a doctor, he can ask the system to find the nearest doctor. A scheduling database can be checked and the call can be transferred to the nearest doctor.
Both SpectraLink and Vocera are developing features that allow functionality similar to Nextel's push-to-talk function.
Not surprisingly, this new niche technology still faces plenty of challenges. Currently, the retail, manufacturing and health care industries are the only markets where wireless voice over IP (VoIP) systems have had some success.
For the market to grow, Guderian said, vendors must work on improving the computing power and battery life of such devices. Network quality of service becomes an important issue as well, since voice is much more sensitive to jitter and latency.
In addition, security poses a challenge. Users cannot take time to reauthenticate themselves as they move across subnets. Users won't put up with those kinds of interruptions in voice service, Guderian said.
While the wireless VoIP market today is small, and analysts' projections for its growth vary, the technology does offer some benefits to users, said attendee Azita Arvani, president of Arvani Group, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based consultancy.
Arvani said that many of the users at the companies she works with need the ability to move around the office and maintain voice communications. The lack of reliable indoor cell coverage makes traditional cell phones a poor choice for those users.
Also, the idea of using voice recognition to log in users was helpful, particularly for those users that are not technology savvy.
But the uses seem limited to subsets of employees, she said: just those that frequently move around indoors. She was concerned about big promises for the emerging technology.
"I just hope Wi-Fi doesn't get over-hyped," Arvani said.
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Get Lisa Phifer's take on the voice over Wi-Fi buzz.