IT managers eager to hear more about forthcoming phones and services that will allow users to roam between Wi-Fi and cellular networks may be in for a long wait.
While Motorola Corp., Avaya Inc. and Proxim Corp. recently announced a joint plan to offer enterprise users a converged wireless device and the infrastructure to support it by years end, notably missing from the announcement were supporting carrier announcements.
While some carriers are offering separate Wi-Fi services, not one has announced a specific plan for corporate roaming services.
"Technology is always interesting in a vacuum," said Jeffrey Nelson, communications director at Verizon Wireless, in Bedminster, N.J. "Were looking at things, but nothings imminent."
Nothing seems imminent on the standards front, either. Upon the announcement of their Wi-Fi-to-cellular plan, Motorola, Avaya and Proxim also announced the formation of the Seamless Converged Communication Across Networks forum. According to company officials, SCCAN will shepherd development of open specifications for interoperability among dual-network handsets and IP PBXes that support both WLAN and cellular networks.
Although the forum has the support of the IEEEs Industry Standards and Technology Organization, no carriers have yet joined. But a lack of carrier support isnt the only thing slowing the progress of Wi-Fi-to-cellular services. Also stressing the efforts are the anticipated high costs of adoption. For example, in addition to enterprises having to buy hybrid phones such as Motorolas forthcoming CN620, they would also have to pay for the infrastructure to support the handoff between networks.
The investment could be worth it because whenever customers use the VOIP side of the system, they would be avoiding the cost of cellular calls.
But these savings could be moot in many cases—especially since there are cellular service packages already offering unlimited monthly service.
"The billing issues are going to be pretty significant," said Bob Hafner, an analyst at Gartner Inc., in Toronto. "If I get flat-rate billing, then the savings I get for moving between Wi-Fi and the cellular network is going to be lost anyway."
Still, other wireless industry players are banking on the success of roaming, based largely on the fact that VOIP (voice over IP) is a burgeoning market.
The Radicati Group, a research company in Palo Alto, Calif., estimates that the corporate VOIP telephony market will jump from almost $1 billion this year to $5.5 billion in 2008. The number of corporate phone lines worldwide using VOIP will jump from 4 percent this year to 44 percent in 2008.
Indeed, for IT managers at companies that have already invested in voice-over-wireless-LAN communications anyway, WLAN/WAN convergence seems compelling. And its not all about the money.
"In hospitals, its more than just cost—there are all these signs that say Danger: Dont use cell phones here; Pacemakers go south," said John Halamka, CIO of Harvard Medical School and CareGroup Health Systems, a Boston-area hospital group. "Because of our internal wireless system, we can control power and make wireless safe in patient areas."
Right now, CareGroup is pilot testing a VOIP system from Vocera Communications Inc. that involves two wireless devices: one for VOIP within the hospital and a redundant cell phone for external voice and data.
"In the interest of built real estate, having a converged device is good," Halamka said. "We dont want to run a redundant device in the hospital. Wed love to get converged."
Still, when it comes to Wi-Fi-to-cellular devices and services, more questions than answers exist.
"Im curious to know how carriers will adopt and offer up this technology to their customers," said Jim Wilhelmi, enterprise telecommunications manager at Intermountain Health Care Inc., in Salt Lake City. "Will it be through a third party or direct, and how much is it going to cost me to build out the software and hardware infrastructures in my business?"