Wireless LANs or WLANs have been on the scene for years now, but today they are being looked at as more than just data transmission points or “hot spots” in lobby or cafeteria areas. Some vertical markets, particularly health care, need to grow a mobile workforce much more quickly than a professional services office like a CPA or law firm. As this need for mobility continues to grow, WLANs are positioned to carry voice throughout a business.

In-building cellular providers, such as Spectralink, and other OEM versions of the same technology are able to connect the WLAN to the voice world through wireless voice handsets equipped to talk to the 802.11 access points common in the data world. The wireless handsets still have their main control box and must be programmed into the telephone system, but the building’s antenna coverage can sometimes be controlled by the existing WLAN infrastructure. The following are some things that a company must know prior to embarking on such a project.

Coverage is crucial
WLAN access points (APs) for data may not need to be positioned in the same locations as the access points which carry voice (VoWLANs). For this reason, coverage must be investigated prior to the implementation of a shared voice and data WLAN infrastructure. Many business owners try to accommodate the mobile worker or visitor by providing controlled internet access just in commons areas, but a voice user will want to stay connected to their caller while roaming the entire facility, enjoying the same comfort as if it were a cellular call. For this to happen, the APs must be positioned appropriately. One must also consider heavy traffic areas, such as the lobby and cafeteria. If coverage is not managed properly, a voice user could get a busy signal in the middle of a conversation because the AP is overloaded and cannot accept the transmission—not exactly the type of customer service we wish to share with our clientele.

Quality of Service
Since the wireless handset uses the 802.11 AP network, this is considered VoIP, or IP Telephony transmission of voice. In the world of IP telephony, Quality of Service (QoS) is a non-negotiable item; it must be present within the network design for the user to have confidence in the system. If QoS is not present, delays in voice transmission, echo, and other such phenomenon will disrupt the confidence of the user, rendering the system useless. As there are several 802.11 standards, the company choosing to utilize voice devices over the WLAN should implement solutions in which the vendor can support the 802.11e standard, which accounts for the Quality of Service requirement in the AP network itself.

Feature sets of phones
Some wireless phone users double as desk users, with a fullfeatured phone at their desk in addition to their mobile wireless phone. Sometimes, the desk user finds it frustrating to be in the field with just an on/off switch and small LCD panel when they are used to the transfer, hold, and other feature keys. In order to effectively migrate workers back and forth between wireless and desk phone operation, it is wise to assess the feature functionality of the wireless handset. Many manufacturers provide sets with programmable feature keys to minimize the differences between a desk set and a wireless phone. Be cautious to limit the type of user on the wireless handset, though, as such phones will not function well for most operator stations, call centers, and the like. The nurse in the field, however, whose limited use may be simply to send or receive a call from a doctor or other care agency is unlikely to care that there is no feature button for feature X, Y, or Z. They simply require rock-solid transmission and a lightweight instrument which they can carry on their uniform, or, better yet, around their neck on a lanyard.

Weight and size are important
In many vertical markets with a high degree of activity among users of WLAN handsets, the weight and shape of the handset can play a strong factor. Some phones are large in size and very heavy, two factors which can play a role in the life expectancy of the handset. They are prone to breakage when dropped from short distances and require costly repairs and extended downtime. It is best if your vendor brings a phone for you to try prior to investing in a particular set. Each organization is different; a manufacturing firm or health care company with mobile workers in the field will likely require a different handset design than a retail establishment.

Is the cost worth it?

As you look at the feasibility of the technology, one must also look at the cost. While it may initially be expensive to deploy such a system ($700-$800 per handset plus infrastructure costs), the payback can be swift and apparent. The ability for a nurse to speak to a doctor without leaving a patient’s bedside may be invaluable to the health care organization. The ability to track inventory without multiple trips back to the desk or kiosk could mean the difference between a $1,000,000 sale or a “thank you very much, try back later” call. The benefits of a VoWLAN or other mobile technologies can be hard to measure in hard dollars, but talking to your staff and customers about their current frustrations may prove very valuable in properly assessing the payback. If you speak with more than one staff member who suggests that responding to a client right away might have made the difference in a sale, then you are on your way to a hard-dollar payback. However, if you speak to your staff and there are no frustrations or requests for better access, you must then ask yourself why you are investing this money if there is no benefit to be gained.

Just remember that the best technology in the world can be the worst technology for your organization if there is no need to deploy it. Technology for its own sake never makes business sense or cents! IBI