Wi-Fi, despite opposition from vendors of competing technologies, will grow and add new capabilities, with voice over Wi-Fi services available in about two years, said speakers at the WiFi/VoWiFi Planet Conference and Expo.
Voice over Wi-Fi, what conference organizers call VoWiFi, has some security and other challenges to fix, but a few organizations in health care, education and other industries are already experimenting with using Wi-Fi networks as the backbone of their phone systems, said Dave Danielson, vice president of marketing for Bluesocket Inc., a Wi-Fi security vendor. While one analyst firm in 2003 forecast more than 500,000 voice over wireless LAN phones sold by 2006, that "hype" may not end up far from reality, he said.
Danielson and Bill Gurley, a venture capitalist with Benchmark Capital, both said they expected voice over Wi-Fi, a cousin to voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) service, to take off in about two years. Already, three major wireless phone makers have committed to making phones that can handle both traditional cellular calls and voice over Wi-Fi calls, Gurley said.
Some critics of Wi-Fi -- or 802.11 wireless -- have questioned its security and the range of transmitters, saying that its use is limited. But dozens of Wi-Fi security vendors have sprung up, and vendors continue to improve the range of Wi-Fi devices well beyond 150 feet (46 meters), a commonly accepted limit for an indoor wireless LAN.
People who still see Wi-Fi as a limited technology available in coffee shops have "blinders" on, Gurley said. "Everybody thinks of 802.11 as a coffee shop," he said. "The technologists around this room have this brain-dead idea that the platform is not going to evolve anymore."
Although Wi-Fi and voice over Wi-Fi can have many of the same security problems as other IP devices, they can also benefit from some of the same solutions, added Danielson. The operating system market for mobile devices is more fractured than the Windows-dominated PC operating system market, he said, meaning malware writers can't hit as many devices with one virus.
But security vendors already offer products that scan devices as they connect to networks, and antivirus software for mobile devices is coming, Danielson said. "I think it's only a matter of time," he said of antivirus packages for mobile devices.
Gurley, whose firm has invested in large-scale Wi-Fi network vendor Tropos Networks Inc., said the combination of broad coverage Wi-Fi networks and voice over Wi-Fi will free phone users from per-minute charges still common in cellular and fixed phone plans. "Imagine walking out of a building with a Wi-Fi phone and making free phone calls," he said.
While city-run Wi-Fi has run into opposition in Philadelphia and other cities, Tropos has close to 200 large-scale Wi-Fi clients worldwide, Gurley said.
Gurley ridiculed companies such as Verizon Communications Inc. and SBC Communications Inc., large telecom carriers that have objected to city-owned Wi-Fi networks that in many cases have offered their residents broadband access cheaper than Verizon and SBC offered DSL (digital subscriber lines). The large telecom companies have complained that municipal wireless networks offer unfair, government-subsidized competition.