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Start-up aims to improve Wi-Fi calls

TeleSym's software lets people make more or less free phone calls over a Wi-Fi network with a laptop, PDA or cell phone. And, it says, callers don't sound like they're in a tin can.

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TeleSym is trying to clear the static out of Wi-Fi calls.

The Bellevue, Wash.-based start-up is marketing software that lets people make what are basically free telephone calls over a Wi-Fi network through a laptop, PDA (personal digital assistant) or cell phone.

More importantly, the underlying technology minimizes the effect of dropped packets or other sundry problems that occur in Internet transmission, the company says. The end effect, according to TeleSym, is that the speaker doesn't sound like he or she is calling from inside a well, or is on a ham radio on the outskirts of Chang Mai.

"Most people have gone on the assumption that you need quality of service (improvements) in the Internet because of packet loss," said Raju Gulabani, the company's CEO. "But it is possible to compensate...(The TeleSym technology) is designed to take into account that there is not quality of service on the Internet. The quality is so good you could be on a call for 24 hours without your brain hurting."

Although analysts and PC executives have for years been touting the ability to make telephone calls over computer networks, with only limited results, momentum is now building for VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol). The quality of the transmissions is rapidly improving while the cost savings of bypassing the telephone carriers has become more apparent. Cisco Systems has become one of the principal proponents .

Wi-Fi essentially extends the reach of VoIP functionality. Handhelds enabled with Wi-Fi run for far less time on a single battery charge than traditional cell phones. Nonetheless, mobile Wi-Fi calls basically cost nothing because they run across existing, expensed computer networks.

While U.S. carriers are mostly only in the tinkering stage with Wi-Fi calls, overseas carriers are moving fairly rapidly to adopt the approach more broadly. China Mobile, the largest mobile carrier in that country, is already bundling Wi-Fi/GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) solutions with mobile phones and laptops, according to sources, while China Netcom is promoting broadband and Wi-Fi for business and commercial buildings.

Using notebooks or PDAs as phones isn't a huge mental stretch either, said Jon Arnold, VoIP program leader for consulting firm Frost and Sullivan, referring to TeleSym's product.

"You're not trying to turn the device into something it isn't," Arnold said "People complain that VoIP is grassroots and fragmented, but so were the first days of the Internet."

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Rather than sell full-fledged VoIP systems like those produced by Cisco, TeleSym develops software, which it sells directly to corporate buyers and increasingly will sell indirectly through hardware manufacturers and/or service providers.

The TeleSym system consists of SymPhone Client software, which basically turns electronic devices into cell phones, and two server applications used to connect and route calls. The SymPhone Call Server routes calls between client phones inside a corporate firewall, while the SymPhone PBX Connector connects client phones to the outside world.

A package dubbed SymPhone N comes with the client software and the Call Server, while the SymPhone NP package comes with both server applications, along with the client.

The PBX Connector can sustain 92 simultaneous calls, Gulabani said. Because studies show that on average only one in 20 phones in a large organization are active at any given time, the company says that one server can handle a staff of about 1,800.

Together, the servers cost $3,500, while the client software costs $300 to $400 per device. But "there are no recurring charges for cell phone calls," Gulabani said. "When you travel you can just use the broadband connection in the hotel."

Still, the company's main selling point is quality of service. Gulabani and the company's other founders have developed algorithms that compensate for blips in transmissions and latency.

"We're able to handle much more jitter and delay than most other competitors can," said Gulabani "You can't compensate for four packets in a row being lost, but we can compensate for two to three packets."

The company is currently focusing on the SymPhone N package, which will be marketed to retailers, warehouses and other companies with large numbers of roving employees. The setup essentially turns a handheld or bar code scanner into a walkie-talkie.

"In many cases they use pagers and cell phones and get monthly charges," Gulabani said, adding that universities are looking at the setup for student communication.

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