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Wi-Fi and VoIP: Is sum greater than parts?

Gear makers have been pitching Net phoning and wireless networks separately to businesses, with lackluster results. Now, they're starting to serve up a combo platter.

Wireless local area networks and Net-based phoning have been among the most talked-about emerging technologies for businesses over the past year, and now, vendors are introducing products they say will help companies combine the two.

"Wi-Fi and VoIP are powerful technologies on their own," said Richard Webb, directing analyst for wireless LANs at Infonetics Research. "But together, they are far more powerful. It's sort of like adding one plus one and getting three."

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Equipment vendors have been targeting these markets separately, but so far, adoption has been slow. According to a study Forrester Research conducted, only about 20 percent of the 818 companies Forrester surveyed said they had completed or were in the process of rolling out Wi-Fi or wireless LANs. About 15 percent said they had completed or were in the process of rolling out voice over Internet Protocol systems.

Experts agree that combining these technologies will help push each of them further. As a result, equipment makers are starting to beef up their offerings. On Monday, Alcatel and Nortel Networks, both strong players in the voice market, announced new wireless products.

Alcatel announced that it will resell wireless switches, appliances and access points from start-up Airespace. The products will be marketed and sold under the Alcatel OmniAccess brand. Alcatel said the equipment

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adheres to the 802.11i security standard the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers ratified, which provides strong encryption for data carried over wireless networks. Alcatel also said the products will support the 802.11a/b/g standards, which promise to improve security and enable higher throughput and VoIP. The IEEE is expected to ratify the 802.11a/b/g standards this summer.

In addition, Alcatel said it plans to start reselling wireless LAN handsets from SpectraLink in October 2004. These handsets are based on the 802.11b standard and will act as extensions of the Alcatel OmniPCX family of IP-PBXs.

Nortel Networks, which started selling its family of wireless switches last year, announced on Monday the 2210 and 2211 wireless handsets. Like Alcatel, the company is partnering with Airespace and SpectraLink for the handset technology.

Experts say the marriage between VoIP and Wi-Fi is a natural one, as companies look for a common infrastructure that will give workers more flexibility in how

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they communicate. VoIP over Wi-Fi offers many benefits to corporate users, such as eliminating the need to use valuable cellular airtime within a campus network. What's more, many cellular phones lose their signal when inside steel frame buildings, so Wi-Fi phones would provide better quality of service and reliability. It's especially useful in vertical industries such as health care, where cellular phones can't be used at all, because they interfere with certain machines.

"As companies build out their next-generation IP infrastructures, they want one highly available and secure network for their wired LAN and their wireless LAN," said Brian Witt, director of product marketing for Alcatel. "We can offer them the gear to do this. Voice over wireless LAN will be just one service that runs over this infrastructure."

But in order for VoIP over Wi-Fi to really take off, it will also have to combine cellular technology, said Joel Conover, an analyst at Current Analysis. Motorola has already started talking about delivering handsets that support both cellular and Wi-Fi access. The company is partnering with VoIP gear maker Avaya and Wi-Fi equipment manufacturer Proxim to develop products that combine cellular, VoIP and wireless technology.

Alcatel and Nortel said the handsets they announced Monday will only support Wi-Fi access.