Vonage Eyes Wi-Fi: Part I

By Ed Sutherland

April 14, 2004

When the VoIP leader said it would embrace Wi-Fi, it didn't mean right away. Learn some details of the hold up in the first part of our look at public access voice over wireless.

The idea of using Wi-Fi to make telephone calls gained steam as voice over IP (VoIP) heavyweight Vonage revealed it is working on a Wi-Fi phone. But don't hold your breath. Executives at the broadband communication outfit say voice-over-hotspots isn't quite ready.

Voice-over-hotspots is the public access version of VoIP. By using a public Wi-Fi hotspot (or a private 802.11 network, it doesn't really matter), callers gain the convenience of a cell phone's mobility without the costs of traditional wireless carriers.

Vonage let slip at the recent Voice Over Network (VON) conference the news the company plans on offering customers a Wi-Fi option. However, questions still surrounding Wi-Fi phones means the company will wait until late 2004 before making a wireless handset part of its standard package for customers.

"It's not quite ready," says Michael Tribolet, vice president of operations at Vonage. Tribolet says the company is looking at the third-quarter of 2004 for any official announcement.

Tribolet pointed to the unanswered questions of whether there will be enough available Wi-Fi-enabled locations to make traveling with your wireless phone practical, along with lingering concerns over the high power usage of Wi-Fi phones.

Any phone that Vonage eventually offers will be completely different than those described now, warns Brooke Schultz, a spokesperson for the company.

While the final handset may change between now and the end of 2004, both Schultz and Tribolet agree on what any Wi-Fi phone will provide: one hour of talk time with four hours of standby. A major failing of past and many current Wi-Fi phones is their heavy power demands. Unlike a cell phone, which can 'hibernate' until the next incoming call, Wi-Fi based phones, dependant on the unpredictable nature of Internet packets, must remain ever vigilant -- and always on. This need for constant power means the talk and standby times for Wi-Fi phones have lagged far behind alternative wireless handsets.

While battery life remains troublesome, several companies are tackling the issue with special gateways and energy-saving silicon chips.

Any Wi-Fi phone offered by Vonage will have the functionality of a cell phone, along with the footprint and features of a traditional wireless handset, says Schultz.

Why is Vonage planning a Wi-Fi phone? "Flexibility," says Tribolet. Since many customers like to use inexpensive VoIP while on the road, the Vonage execs say offering a Wi-Fi phone eliminates the need to lug around the adapter that connects analog phones to the broadband phone network.

Vonage has two vendors in mind for the phone, but refuses to be specific, citing restrictions from a non-disclosure agreement.

"I know that Vonage is testing my phone because Lou Holder's wife uses it in their home," says Jeff Pulver, referring to Vonage's executive vice president of product development.

Along with being Vonage co-creator, spearheading the Free World Dialup (FWD) network and the annual VON conference gathering of VoIP enthusiasts, Pulver is selling a phone that can be used on the Internet or through a Wi-Fi connection.

Dubbed the WiSIP by Pulver Innovations, the $250 phone is optimized for the Free World Dialup system. It also uses 802.11b for Wi-Fi connections.

On April 1, Lowell, Mass.-based BroadVoice announced it would begin selling a "special edition" of Pulver's phone.

"The WiSIP phone from Pulver Innovations is one of the many devices that we will support," said David Epstein, BroadVoice CEO.

Pulver says his company is "exploring selling our phone bundled with a number of service providers."

BroadVoice was formed less than a year ago in Dec. 2003 It is following Vonage's footsteps by offering phone service to the growing number of broadband consumers. The company is owned by Convergent Networks, a maker of network routers.

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