VoWLAN: The Wireless Voice Future is Here ... Almost
VoWLAN might be the chocolate and peanut butter of networking, but the convergence of VoIP and wireless freedom has its share of snags. Here's what you need to know.
Chris Taylor, Telecommunications Manager, Metro Toronto Convention Centre had a serious problem. His mission critical Nortel "Companion" 900Mz phone system was no longer supported and he needed a replacement system double quick. With 2 million square feet of open exhibition space spread over two buildings, he needed a communications system that provided roaming and instant communications, an open flexible data network, and a minimum of wires. A year ago, he started looking at wireless networking combined with VoIP (Voice over IP) or VoWLAN (Voice over IP over Wireless) as part of the total networking solution. As Taylor put it, "My three goals were to provide wireless data networking for exhibitors, create a corporate profit center by selling services to the exhibitors, and meet employee data/telecommunications needs. The combination of VoIP and wireless networking fit the bill exactly."
With 55 million lines and 15% of the voice market, VoIP is an established and rapidly maturing technology. It has been proven to be less expensive to install and maintain; the core equipment is comparable in cost to traditional voice, and it offers many more integration options. Wireless technology is also rapidly maturing, so the next obvious step is to deploy a converged technology. Until a few months ago, the converged technology suffered from proprietary equipment, weak security, and a lack of scalable network management tools: It was not quite ready for prime time. All that has changed in the past year. The VoWLAN landscape is rapidly changing with evolving standards, new equipment, and finally some good management tools. Let us look at some of the issues that were plaguing VoWLAN and how the fledgling industry is successfully addressing them.
Approaching Technological Liftoff
According to Bob Myers, CTO and co-founder of Chantry Networks, a company that develops wireless network management systems, VoWLAN is growing rapidly in certain vertical industries like health care, hospitality, retail and manufacturing. Industries where the flexibility, combined voice and data requirements are so compelling that they are willing to forgo the current lack of handset hardware, network management tools and poorly addressed security, standards, and QoS (Quality of Service) issues.
Part of the problem is that wireless is a contention media -- the users share the available bandwidth -- so wireless will always have overhead issues and more complex management requirements. Another overlooked issue is how to determine good coverage. In an open field, coverage is easy to determine, but most IT people don't have the specialized knowledge required to plan an installation for a complex environment like a hospital, with all its attendant equipment and building structures.
Myers notes, "Health care's transition to VoWLAN came about because they had widely deployed 802.11 so they were already comfortable with the technology. The hospitality and retail sectors both have a widely dispersed work force that needs to be in constant communication. Both industries were previously using the 900Mz Walkie-Talkie systems, so conversion to VoWLAN was a natural next step. Beyond those specific industries, uptake has been slow because of the perceived security issues and lake of management tools." Recently, there has been a major change in perception as companies discover the benefits of increased flexibility, the improved security standards, and the always popular, substantially lower operational costs.
Wireless Network Management
A critical component to the success of VoWLAN is sophisticated wireless network management tools. As Myers puts it, "Unlike all previous computer technology, wireless networking, wireless came back into the enterprise from the SOHO and home markets. With a three node network, you don't need management tools." When rolling out enterprise wide wireless, especially VoIP, the need for prioritized data streams, transparent access point handoffs, and seamless security are essential. Chantry offers a management package that is designed to specifically address these issues. Other companies, like Avaya and Cisco who are heavily invested in developing this market, are also working to develop new tools.
Continued on Page 2: What Else is There to Think About?