Voice over wireless LAN? Not this year. Or so was my experience this week at Jeff Pulvers VON Europe show here in London.
It just so happened that before the show opened, I was on an assignment to test voice-over-IP (VOIP) telephony. So, I was pretty glad of the expertise Id find at the event.
Boy, was I disappointed!
The technology for doing VOIP is established, pretty stable and in use. According to Sonus, roughly 10 percent of the worlds wired phone networks are switched by IP switches—and a lot of those are owned by Sonus, of course.
But watching people trying to do voice over WLAN in London, youd never have guessed.
I was trying to install the software from a new SIP provider—and failing. The companys offering is brilliant: Like U.S. startup StanaPhone, which claims to be the first to do this, Gossiptel offers free land numbers so that incoming calls are charged at local rates, and it has number presence around the world. And I simply couldnt make it work.
VON Europe, of course, had WLAN coverage. “You should be here; you could get online and I could debug it for you,” suggested the Gossiptel support guy. I was there; I went around to find him, and we spent a dispiriting half-hour failing.
The best result we got was that just once, I heard his voice with a delay of about 15 seconds, saying “You just have to speak up!”—which was part of a 20-second burst of speech from him. The rest was lost.
It wasnt his fault. I subsequently tried to set up Free World Dialup, which happens to be Pulvers favourite—it is said!—and got no further.
At least I was able to register. When I tried StanaPhone, it accepted my registration, but some days later, Im still waiting for that magic e-mail that tells me how to log in and use it.
And I could probably use Skype, if I didnt want to call outside land or mobile phones. Niklaus Zennström, the companys CEO, told us hes going to do Skype Out this year, to mend that failing.
But I would still run a serious risk of failure, because Skype doesnt ask for a duplicate password when you set it up. So, if you mistype it, youll never know what it was.
The amateur nature of this market isnt what appalls me. I like enthusiastic amateurs. They created the PC business in the first place. No, what kills my sense of hope is the wishful thinking.
The fact is, as Guy Redmill, senior market development manager at Brooktrout, said: “Wi-Fi is more than data. We must pay attention to real-time voice service.”
But we arent. Folks, the fact is that 90 percent of the Wi-Fi gear out there simply wont stand up to serious voice carriage. Trivial traffic, sure, but under any sort of stress, the network simply falls over.
Nobody is going to convince me that someone of Jeff Pulvers reputation didnt care if the WLAN at his convention didnt support VOIP traffic! Of course he cares! He cares like heck! And it was in shambles.
The LAN was up and down like the ensign on a Navy ship going through a fleet of saluting pleasure yachts. A hammer drill would have stayed up—or down—more reliably.
For one guy working away in a Starbucks, or better still in his hotel room, or for one gal logged on to a hot spot in a train station, it is possible to overlook the awful latency built into some access points.
But for a horde of eager business callers, anxious to get through to someone, its just a joke.
Except I needed to get through, and I wasnt laughing. One day, maybe, this will work, but lets not pretend it does today.
Skypes Zennström reckons that as many as 50 percent of VOIP calls fail. Over WLAN, I doubt its half that. Someone has to get serious about this.