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What it will take for mobile VoIP to get enterprise-ready

By all rights, mobile VoIP sounds like an enticing proposition for a lot of companies.

After all, what enterprise wouldn't jump at the opportunity to save money on their mobile phone bills by sending their wireless calls over an IP network rather than a cellular network? But despite this attractive premise, current mobile VoIP technology has yet to evolve to the point where users can simply switch on their phones anywhere and expect to connect to a secure IP network.

The obvious reason for this is because mobile VoIP devices today are reliant upon Wi-Fi technology, which can offer quality voice service but which also has limited range and is prone to coverage gaps that make it problematic as a voice technology. These factors have so far limited mobile VoIP offerings to office environments or home environments where workers can securely connect to local hotspots to get a dedicated voice channel. But Stan Schatt, an analyst at ABI Research, says that these in-office, in-house technologies have not yet matured enough to the point where they can properly support more complicated applications such as conference calling.

“I have talked to some enterprises that are using [mobile VoIP providers] Skype or Truphone and the problem they've told me about is that there are times when the services levels aren't where they want them for conference calls,”he says. “When you've got a wireline VoIP connection, you've got a gigabit of bandwidth. When you do it over Wi-Fi you obviously have a lot less.”

So what will it take for mobile VoIP to really become popular across enterprise networks? One obvious answer is more bandwidth. With so many carriers upgrading to technologies such as WiMAX and Long Term Evolution (LTE) over the next couple of years, the amount of bandwidth available for mobile voice services will increase significantly. Irwin Lazar, an analyst for Nemertes Research, says despite the fact that WiMAX services are commercially available now, broader mobile VoIP adoption may have to wait until Verizon and AT&T launch their LTE services in two years' time.

“WiMAX is starting to fall off the radar because of WiMAX provider troubles,”he says. “What you may find with LTE is that the data services will be fast enough to support mobile VoIP. Once LTE becomes a reality, most enterprises say that's where they expect their services to head. You'll see that more than you'll see Wi-Fi.”

Gartner analyst Tole Hart says that using LTE to route voice calls through an IP network is attractive to carriers because it will put less strain on their cellular networks. However, he also notes that even though carriers are planning to have their first deployments of LTE up and running in two years, it will take a while for LTE to become prevalent enough for enterprises to really invest in using it for mobile VoIP.

“Initially you'll have about 30 cities with LTE coverage, so it will only be in certain areas,”he says. “When the networks build out in five years' time, you'll see a lot more adoption of mobile VoIP.”But even with more mobile VoIP options on the table in the future, Gartner still projects that mobile VoIP traffic will account for under 5% of all mobile voice traffic through 2012. However, Gartner says that carriers can't afford to overlook the potential of mobile VoIP, as “the emergence of more free VoIP services… will attract people using mobile VoIP on a casual basis.”

Fernando Egea, the director of solution architecture for Alcatel-Lucent, says that pressure from independent mobile VoIP providers could make life difficult for carriers, who don't want to be in the position of supporting their competitors' voice services on their own data networks. This market pressure, says Egea, could lead to major changes in how carriers price their cellular minutes.

“The carriers have to ask themselves, ‘How do we make money by supporting Skype and Truphone over our networks?'”he says. “The way things are going, it's very possible that voice could become free in the future and that carriers would make their money instead off of mobile data.”

Security needed

Improved wireless networks are only part of the equation for making mobile VoIP an enterprise fixture, of course. Another key will have to be security, since sending voice calls through Internet Protocol leaves them open to the same vulnerabilities as other kinds of Internet traffic.

“There doesn't seem to be a general concern about security for mobile VoIP yet,”Schatt says. “People don't necessarily think of mobile VoIP in the same way they think of their other IP services, and they aren't as worried about DDoS attacks against voice services or about spammers that could target VoIP and send robotic voice messages over IP networks.”

Schatt says that many of the mobile VoIP security products on the market today are similar to AirMagnet's VoFi Analyzer, which is primarily focused on QoS, and Motorola's AirDefense Enterprise, which focuses on securing enterprise WLANs but that doesn't specialize in protecting mobile VoIP traffic. And although most mobile VoIP security solutions today are capable of encrypting voice traffic, Schatt says that this won't be enough once more threats to mobile VoIP start to emerge.

“You have to take the same safeguards with mobile VoIP as with wireline VoIP,”says Schatt. “But it's even more critical because you are dealing with less available bandwidth.”

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