Voice over Wi-Fi on the way

Voice over Wi-Fi is coming in about two years, say Wi-Fi experts.

Wi-Fi, despite opposition from vendors of competing technologies, will grow and add new capabilities, with voice over Wi-Fi services available in about two years, said speakers at the WiFi/VoWiFi Planet Conference and Expo.

Voice over Wi-Fi, what conference organizers call VoWiFi, has some security and other challenges to fix, but a few organizations in health care, education and other industries are already experimenting with using Wi-Fi networks as the backbone of their phone systems, said Dave Danielson, vice president of marketing for Bluesocket, a Wi-Fi security vendor. While one analyst firm in 2003 forecast more than 500,000 voice over wireless LAN phones sold by 2006, that "hype" may not end up far from reality, he said.

Danielson and Bill Gurley, a venture capitalist with Benchmark Capital, both said they expected voice over Wi-Fi, a cousin to voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) service, to take off in about two years. Already, three major wireless phone makers have committed to making phones that can handle both traditional cellular calls and voice over Wi-Fi calls, Gurley said.

Some critics of Wi-Fi -- or 802.11 wireless -- have questioned its security and the range of transmitters, saying that its use is limited. But dozens of Wi-Fi security vendors have sprung up, and vendors continue to improve the range of Wi-Fi devices well beyond 150 feet (46 meters), a commonly accepted limit for an indoor wireless LAN.

People who still see Wi-Fi as a limited technology available in coffee shops have "blinders" on, Gurley said. "Everybody thinks of 802.11 as a coffee shop," he said. "The technologists around this room have this brain-dead idea that the platform is not going to evolve anymore."

Although Wi-Fi and voice over Wi-Fi can have many of the same security problems as other IP devices, they can also benefit from some of the same solutions, added Danielson. The operating system market for mobile devices is more fractured than the Windows-dominated PC operating system market, he said, meaning malware writers can't hit as many devices with one virus.

But security vendors already offer products that scan devices as they connect to networks, and antivirus software for mobile devices is coming, Danielson said. "I think it's only a matter of time," he said of antivirus packages for mobile devices.

Gurley, whose firm has invested in large-scale Wi-Fi network vendor Tropos Networks, said the combination of broad coverage Wi-Fi networks and voice over Wi-Fi will free phone users from per-minute charges still common in cellular and fixed phone plans. "Imagine walking out of a building with a Wi-Fi phone and making free phone calls," he said.

While city-run Wi-Fi has run into opposition in Philadelphia and other cities, Tropos has close to 200 large-scale Wi-Fi clients worldwide, Gurley said.

Gurley ridiculed companies such as Verizon Communications and SBC Communications, large telecom carriers that have objected to city-owned Wi-Fi networks that in many cases have offered their residents broadband access cheaper than Verizon and SBC offered DSL (digital subscriber lines). The large telecom companies have complained that municipal wireless networks offer unfair, government-subsidized competition.

Gurley noted that Verizon Chief Executive Officer Ivan Seidenberg was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle in April as saying municipal Wi-Fi was "one of the dumbest ideas I've ever heard." Seidenberg noted that municipal Wi-Fi networks would have to be maintained and upgraded, and private companies have better expertise to do so than cities.

"If [municipal Wi-Fi] doesn't work, why do you care?" Gurley said in response to Seidenberg's quote. "If it just doesn't work, quit talking about it, let them fail, and the market will move away from them."

In February, the New Millennium Research Council, a think tank funded by Verizon, SBC and other companies, released a study suggesting city-run wireless networks had several "grave flaws." Those flaws include tying up tax dollars in technology that could become outdated quickly; damage to commercial broadband vendors; a lack of evidence that city-run networks will create jobs or economic development; and a lack of evidence that residents will pay for the Wi-Fi service.

"(While) the intentions of city officials and administrators are admirable, the rollout of municipally held Wi-Fi networks will likely have a detrimental effect on city budgets and on competition in the telecommunications industry, and fail to produce the economic growth and jobs promised by municipal leaders," the authors said in that study.

Gurley noted that the U.S. has fallen to 16th place among nations in broadband penetration with the current crop of providers. "The thing that will get the incumbents off their butts to build better broadband is competition," he said.

One of the keys to improved 802.11 technology is its open standards, Gurley added. Vendors of Wi-Fi services benefit from the research and development of the entire industry, he said. "It's hard to compete with an ecosystem."

One challenge for the Wi-Fi industry will be to ensure than related technologies such as the long-range WiMax wireless technology offers backwards compatibility, he said. Computer makers will have to include both Wi-Fi and WiMax devices in new laptops to avoid consumer confusion, he said.

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