The Essential Guide to Wireless VoIP

Updated: April 30, 2009

VoIP technology has transformed the telephone industry over the last half-decade. Now, VoIP is promising to make a similar impact on mobile communications .

WVoIP (wireless VoIP) is based on the same standards and technologies as its wired counterpart. The technology also embraces several wireless standards, such as wifi, WiMAX and high-speed mobile services like EVDO Rev. A and HSDPA.

A WVoIP device can take many forms. One approach is to transform a high-speed-compatible IP product , such as a mobile phone, into a SIP (Session Initiation pPotocol) client that uses the network for SIP messaging and the RTP (Real-time Transport Protocol) for voice. An alternative is to use a gateway to link SIP and RTP into a mobile network's SS7 infrastructure. A company called iSkoot Inc . can also link several types of mobile phones to the Skype Ltd . hosted-wireless service via an iSkoot network gateway.

If you want to research the best options, see this report on using wireless VoIP for business or Voip-News' Wireless Phone Comparison Guide . You can also read on for an impartial look at the benefits of WVoIP, how it can fit in to your business and some main points you should consider.

Benefits

As with regular VoIP services, WVoIP 's biggest drawing card is its cost benefits . WVoIP adopters can escape the high-priced calling plans and contract terms offered by most mobile carriers. International-call savings can be particularly substantial. Many WVoIP services charge pennies per minute for global calls that would cost dollars per minute on a conventional mobile phone.

WVoIP is also much more flexible than conventional mobile-phone technology. Instead of being tied to a single mobile phone, users have a choice of conducting calls on a WVoIP handset, mobile/wifi hybrid phone , wireless-enabled laptop computer or PDA. In the years ahead, WVoIP features will likely be built into a growing number of media players, vehicle entertainment systems, handheld games, digital cameras, book readers and an array of other portable devices.

A final advantage is simply that as enterprises turn to VoIP for their main phone systems, WVoIP will become the preferred wireless method and will get in through the back door, so to speak.

Technical Barriers

While it's hard to beat WVoIP's cost advantages, the technology still lags behind conventional mobile phones in several areas. Perhaps the greatest barrier blocking widespread consumer and enterprise adoption is the limited coverage range currently provided by wifi networks. While a WVoIP handset should work well inside organization offices or campuswide wireless networks, and it may work well inside coffee shops, hotel rooms or airport departure lounges located within wifi hotspots, the technology can't be easily used (if at all) while walking, driving or cycling along public streets. Even when wifi hotspots overlap, many WVoIP handsets continue to be plagued by handoff bugs that result in interrupted or lost calls.

Mobile services, wifi's prime competition, generally provide seamless connectivity over entire metropolitan areas. Yet mobile services are typically much pricier than those of wifi networks, which are often available at little or no cost. As a result, WVoIP's cost benefits quickly evaporate on a mobile network.

Discouraged by wifi's limited coverage and mobile services' high prices, many WVoIP users are looking forward to the mass deployment of wide-area WiMAX networks , which will feature average cell ranges of four to five miles. Over 250 WiMAX trials and deployments of WiMAX systems now exist, according to reports from Intel Corp . and WiMAX Forum. Yet it will likely be several years before wide-scale commercial WiMAX deployments roll out across the U.S.

Power consumption is another WVoIP headache. Although WVoIP handset vendors such as Cisco Systems Inc ., NETGEAR and SpectraLink Corp . have worked hard over the past several years to scale back their handsets' power thirst, the "talk" and "standby" ratings of WVoIP devices are still far shorter than the operating times offered by their conventional mobile-phone counterparts.

Yet another challenge facing WVoIP adopters is the QoS (quality of service) over wifi and mobile networks. Since these systems were engineered to handle data traffic, not voice packets, many WVoIP users complain about poor voice quality, garbled audio, noise and other service-robbing problems. Wifi hotspots can also become overloaded when too many people use WVoIP or other bandwidth-intensive applications simultaneously.

History: Then and Now

WVoIP started gaining traction around 2004, when a number of hospitals and other health-care facilities were attracted to the technology as a way of providing on-site, wifi-based mobile voice service to doctors, nurses and other personnel without running up massive mobile-phone bills. The technology has also found use in office buildings as well as campuses, factories, warehouses, shipping yards and other business locations that can be easily covered by a wifi network.

Today, the WVoIP market remains in a period of rapid evolution, with new service concepts and technologies arriving almost continuously. Among the field's many players, Skype, the popular hosted-VoIP service, appears intent on establishing itself as a leader in the wireless IP telephony market. At the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show, the company introduced several new products designed to bring its service to mobile handsets, tablet computers and portable game systems, among other devices. Google , Vonage Holdings Corp . and several other companies are also reported to be readying WVoIP ventures. A dual-mode handset, the 3skypephone , is becoming very popular in Europe, operating as a WVoIP phone when a wifi network is available and as a conventional mobile phone otherwise. The 3skypephone will supposedly reach the U.S. in late 2008.

In almost all respects, WVoIP's history is still being written.

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