VoIPowering Your Office: Doing VoIP Wi-Fi

Voice over Wi-Fi is a bit like the Wild West: near-anarchy, but with plenty of fun and excitement for the stout of heart.

 By Carla Schroder
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Now that we have thoroughly dissected the pros and cons and technological challenges of extending VoIP services to Wi-Fi in part 1 and part 2 of this little series, let's take a look at VoIP/Wi-Fi in action.

Wi-Fi phones
Back in my grandmother's day getting a telephone was easy. There was but one phone company, AT&T, and a tiny selection of phones to choose from, which you never owned but rented. So over your lifetime you paid enough in phone rent to buy it a hundred times over, and you had to do this because of purported safety reasons—using the Wrong Phone would make Bad Things happen. AT&T had the seemingly friendly nickname Ma Bell, but Ma Bell was friendly only as long as you did what she said.

Fast-forward to now . . . and welcome to bedlam. There are so many choices and different service providers that I sometimes long for the simplicity of the benevolent dictator Ma Bell era. But at least it's been thoroughly proven that customer-owned phones do not make Bad Things happen.

So when you're shopping for a Wi-Fi phone, you have several categories to choose from:

  • Vanilla Wi-Fi phones that you configure
  • Wi-Fi phones that are locked to a single vendor
  • Various multiple-mode combinations
  • Phones that plug into your computer
  • Computer headsets

Vanilla Wi-Fi phones
Plain old Wi-Fi phones are available from a number of vendors: UTStarcom, Linksys, Hitachi, Astra, D-Link, Zyxel—in short, the usual suspects. Prices range from around $90/US to $400. These are typically SIP-enabled phones that support 802.11b/g. Placing or receiving calls is a two-step process: first you have to connect to the Internet, then authenticate to your VoIP server, and then you can make calls.

Connecting to the Internet is the tricky bit. If you can find an open access point it's easy, because most of these phones will search for one and connect automatically. If you need to authenticate, you get to experience the fun of entering WEP or WPA keys from a tiny telephone keypad. Fortunately, you can save a number of connection profiles and save your encryption keys. WPA (not WEP, which is so weak it's useless) is nice to protect your calls from eavesdroppers.

A potential show-stopper is access points that require a Web browser to login. If your phone doesn't include a Web browser you'll be locked out of a lot of public access points, even free ones. So keep this in mind when you're phone shopping. Naturally, only the more expensive phones include Web browsers. But the higher-end phones usually deliver better call quality, support more voice codecs, and are built better, so now you have a lot of reasons to not skimp.

The phone will also need to be configured to connect to your VoIP server, which is just like configuring any other endpoint, except it means using the phone's keypad to enter everything. Which isn't so bad for numbers, but oldtimers like me who never got the hang of texting will struggle with entering letters. But again, this is a one-time chore, and newer models support easier methods of provisioning.

These phones are great for anyone who runs their own VoIP server, and for customers of VoIP service providers who support BYOD, or "bring your own devices." I've abandoned enough perfectly good cell phones over the years because of vendor-lock-in-stupidity, and that's one habit I am happy to break.

They're nice for traveling if you don't need the always-on-everywhere service of a cell phone, but just need to check in periodically, or if you're going to be primarily at the same location like a trade show or a branch office. You'll get all the services that your VoIP server supports, just as if you were back home at the mother ship. If you've been lugging a laptop along just to have VoIP, or an analog converter like Digium's IAXy, the Grandstream Handytone, or the Linksys SPA1001, a Wi-Fi phone might be a good replacement.

Single-vendor Wi-Fi phones
More of these are popping up like mushrooms after a rain: T-Mobile, Skype, Vonage, and more. You purchase a branded phone already configured with your account information, and then you might have to handle a bit more setup, like entering an encryption key, but otherwise it's pretty much buy-and-play. This is convenient, but at a cost: Skype and Vonage are both closed networks, and most vendors of branded phones lock them to their services. A geekly wizard can usually unlock these phones (Apple's iPhone is probably the most famous example of a locked phone that users are unlocking in droves; some reports say as many as 250,000), so their terms of service are as scary as trained attack lawyers can make them. They try to make it sound like the device that you purchased really isn't yours at all, but theirs and they have the right to control how you use it.

Obviously I'm not a fan of vendor-locked devices, but if this is something that meets your needs I won't say another word about it.

Come back next week for the final part of our VoIP Wi-Fi roundup, with some tips and tricks for getting the best call quality.

This article was originally published on Oct 29, 2007
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