Voice over WLAN: Opportunity and challenge

Voice, data and mobility are converging, and will be coming to your office soon - if they're not already there.


The options for voice/data convergence just keep on multiplying. Voice over IP followed the trend towards wireless LANs and Wi-Fi to become Voice over WLAN ( also known as VoWLAN, VoWi-Fi or even Vo-Fi), and now as mobile phones gain Wi-Fi, they too are becoming VoIP-capable.

Techworld recently sat in on a round-table discussion where experts from across the world of networking talked about the challenges that VoWLAN and converged mobile devices pose, both to user organisations and network operators - and of course about the opportunities they bring, as well.

How important is mobile voice/data convergence?

Marcus Birkl, Siemens: VoWLAN is three to five percent of the WLAN market but it is growing tremendously, so when we talk to customers we tell them 'If you deploy wireless LAN, you had better make it voice-capable.' Seamless roaming is at a very early technical stage though.

Jay Burrell, Nokia: We are putting it in some of our enterprise devices, it will become more elegant over time. There's also links with the PBX vendors.

The other thing is what else you can do with it, for example injecting presence and location.

Any enterprise that doesn't think it's supporting VoIP today is being naive.

Paul Miller, Symantec: The biggest thing about voice over Wi-Fi is availability. People are used to dial-tone, so anything that takes the service down, such as a denial of service attack, is unacceptable.

So who is going to provide these VoWLAN services, and will people pay for them? In particular, what threat do they pose to the mobile network operators?

John Shultz, Verizon: It's an opportunity as well as a challenge - it's just moving minutes from one link to another. We have to embrace the technology shift, not run away from it.

Burrell: If the vendors can make VoWi-Fi a delightful experience, people will be more willing to pay for it.

Another question is what's the role of Google, Skype and Yahoo going to be in enterprise mobility? CIOs have to include those in their considerations.

Miller: There's mixed devices, multiple networks - any organisation will span multiple networks which makes outsourcing harder.

Birkl: 802.11i is essential, as is quality of service. 11n is not an issue for business, because they can get bandwidth by adding coverage.

What about the reverse - the threat posed by cellular and public broadband services to the expansion of corporate Wi-Fi?

Birkl: Cellular broadband works for consumers but not for in-building bandwidth. Also, enterprises already have their own infrastructure so they need to combine that with the public infrastructure.

Shultz: There's also security issues - people don't trust public networks, especially in finance for example.

And in the future - what services might we see next and where are convergence and mobility headed?

Burrell: A big part is consumer behaviour in emerging markets - they're embracing mobile services much faster. There's also less tolerance of dropped calls, for example.

Miller: Most of the innovators in business wireless are North American, whereas it's Korea and Japan for consumer wireless.

Birkl: The corporate user probably has three or four user interfaces now - a PBX phone, a mobile, a Palm, etc. It would be a good productivity step to converge on one. Then the next step is to bring together consumer and business behaviour.

Burrell: Convergence at the user is one thing, but investment in unifying the back-end is hard to justify at current adoption rates. The big trend we focus on is [unifying and managing] enterprise apps purchased by an individual, such as navigation or email.

Miller: The generational influence is compelling. Most of the value proposition is you can have a single number and several lines over one connection. Kids embrace that much faster than large enterprises do. It's also a godsend to SMBs who try to do more with fewer people.

Birkl: Europe is moving faster on fixed-mobile convergence than North America, because of the more liberalised infrastructure.

Burrell: US operators are rolling it out though, and when they do, the impact will be much more profound.

And the security risks?

Miller: When we saw a crimewave this year, we knew it's for profit now, not for fun.

We suggest IT should add five percent to headcount for security on mobile. The people carrying these things are the targets - senior execs, senior sales staff. It's probably 20 percent of users overall.

The trend is away from fame and towards fortune, so attacks are more targeted. Most attacks are against the home though, because it's the least well-protected.

The experts around the table

Marcus Birkl is head of world-wide sales for the HiPath wireless comms group of Siemens Enterprise Communications.

Jay Burrell is VP for business development at Nokia Enterprise Solutions, the group which includes the Intellisync assets bought by Nokia just over a year ago.

Paul Miller is Symantec's managing director for mobile security, and an expert on security and identity services.

John Schultz is executive director of managed network services at Verizon Business, which thanks to its merger with MCI (where he held a similar role) is now one of the world's largest network service providers.

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