New standard could give Wi-Fi a voice

LONDON (01/13/2004) - A standards effort was launched today which should allow office Wi-Fi networks to handle voice calls. A group of vendors, including Airespace Inc. and Spectralink Corp., has requested permission to create a Fast Roaming study group, working on handover between access points, within the IEEE standards body.

The IEEE already has a quality of service standard, 802.11e in progress, that can prioritize voice packets over data, but the new proposal is needed for the separate issue of handling phone calls when users move between access points within a wireless network. The original 802.11 Wi-Fi standard specified that users should be able to move to a different access point, but this "roaming" creates a brief interruption in the data stream.

The break has been made worse by security features implemented on Wi-Fi networks, ironically. When a user moves from one access point to another while making a voice call, an encrypted tunnel must be broken down through one access point and re-formed through the new one; if this process takes more than 50ms, the user will hear a break in the voice conversation. Vendors have reported hand-over times of more than 70ms.

"With the new security of 802.11i, there is a feeling that roaming has been slowed down and needs to receive a kick in the pants," said Harry Simpson, vice president of marketing at Airespace, a wireless switch vendor which majors on voice over Wi-Fi, and a member of the study group.

The study group will start work on its proposed standard directly; the IEEE's bureaucracy cannot officially launch the standards project until the 802 executive committee has approved the "project authorization request" issued by the study group, and passed it to its standards committee for final, final approval in March.

"Airespace is involved, because we agree that without a standard in this area there will be a pile of proprietary ways to do this," said Simpson. "This affects VoIP handsets most severely today, but all 802.11 devices are affected to one degree or another." It also affects applications differently, he said, depending how tolerant they are to interruptions to the data flow.

Cisco Systems Inc. has planned its own proprietary answer, in the form of extensions to its wireless products, and others have implemented different handover mechanisms. Simpson hopes that the proposed standard irons out these differences. Other companies who have expressed interest in IEEE discussion groups include Symbol Technologies Inc. and Intel Corp.

In the meantime, many people feel that current Wi-Fi standards cannot support voice reliably, with the addition of 802.11a being a popular suggestion to get round the problem.

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