VoWi-Fi calls to users

Early adopters deploy voice over wireless to gain mobility and cost savings.

Organizations venturing into pre-standard VoWi-Fi waters are being driven by a critical need for real-time voice and data services. The retail, logistics/warehousing, manufacturing and education sectors are among the early adopters, but healthcare is leading the charge.

Organizations venturing into pre-standard VoWi-Fi waters are being driven by a critical need for real-time voice and data services. The retail, logistics/warehousing, manufacturing and education sectors are among the early adopters, but healthcare is leading the charge.

Rice Memorial Hospital was early onto the wireless voice bandwagon, installing a proprietary analog radio frequency system from SpectraLink in 1995 to augment cellular coverage throughout the facility. By late 2002 some of the SpectraLink gear had been discontinued, and replacing broken items was becoming a problem.

The Willmar, Minn., hospital wanted to move to an IP network that would support voice. "But we were also looking to improve our cellular coverage in the building, and MobileAccess had a converged platform that could do both," says Jon Barber, the hospital's telecom manager.

MobileAccess uses a hybrid fiber/coaxial backbone to distribute voice and data services to mobile users. Signals from the cellular WAN and the Wi-Fi LAN are carried on this backbone to broadband antennas that can radiate multiple kinds of services simultaneously. Fewer access points are required because each can have four antennas.

"You can put in a single infrastructure, and then add different signal types later," Barber says. "And all the [access points] are put in the wiring closet, so they are easier to get to."

Rice was the first fully integrated system MobileAccess installed, so "it was a painful process," recalls Barber. Voice requires a much stronger signal than data on a wireless LAN, because the packets have to be transmitted right the first time, and in a fixed order. After a year and a half, users are still discovering problem spots that must be filled in by adding an access point or an antenna.

The hospital is now in the midst of integrating a new nurse call system with the SpectraLink Wi-Fi handsets, and Barber is looking forward to SpectraLink's forthcoming pure- IP upgrade that eliminates the gateway between the handsets and the PBX.

"That will get rid of equipment in the switch room, and free up a lot of digital ports on my PBX," Barber says.

While Rice was evaluating MobileAccess, Condell Medical Center was looking to replace an aging wireless voice network based on proprietary Avaya access points.

Condell took a more typical route, beefing up its existing Cisco wireless data LAN to support voice. The Libertyville, Ill., medical center implemented a virtual LAN (VLAN) to give voice traffic priority, and added 10 to 15 access points - a $10,000 upgrade. The big cost was handsets, and Condell spent $250,000 replacing obsolete SpectraLink handsets with Wi-Fi models.

"We started deploying the phones last year, and it was like opening the floodgate," says Sue Mesmer, communications supervisor for the hospital. Every employee who spends time scurrying around the hospital saw the benefits immediately, and the 170 phones that were originally planned quickly expanded to 280.

The VoWi-Fi handsets are making people and processes more efficient, and the hospital is finding more uses for them. These include "code blue" broadcasts when there is an emergency, as well as integration with the nurse call system and a new patient-tracking application. The handsets have all the features of a desktop phone, and usage can be restricted according to job category. For example, the nurses can make outside calls, but the housekeeping staff can't.

Like the two hospitals, the State University of New York at Cortland rolled out a WLAN years ago, but wireless voice wasn't part of the picture until recently. The precipitating event was the migration of wired voice to Cisco IP telephony early last year.

"Once we experienced VoIP, we started populating our WLAN with wireless IP phones," says Daniel Sidebottom, director of administrative computing services. "Because we already had such a robust foundation in place, our deployment costs were minimal - just the Cisco 1100 and 1200 access points at $600 to $800 each, and Cisco 7920 phones that cost about $350 each."

The VoWi-Fi users are currently just the IT support staff, but Sidebottom expects to begin deploying the wireless IP phones to other departments by the end of the summer. The physical plant staff currently makes extensive use of cell phones, and Sidebottom estimates that moving them to VoWi-Fi could save the university as much as $25,000 to $30,000 per year.

Meanwhile, the university has implemented VoWi-Fi at its Outdoor Education Center in the Adirondacks, some 200 miles away. The phones keep the center's staff in touch with each other, and let them make four-digit extension calls to people at the main campus - avoiding toll charges that can add up to thousands of dollars each year.

Sidebottom says his users are very happy with the results. "The voice quality is so clear that you don't even notice the handoff when you move between access points."

Mobility is supposed to increase productivity, and St. Agnes Healthcare has actually quantified some of these gains. The Baltimore hospital was the subject of an exhaustive benefits study after it implemented VoWi-Fi with the help of the hands-free Vocera badge.

The study found that each healthcare unit in the 299-bed facility saved an average of 3,400 hours per year, or the equivalent of 1.7 full-time employees. Nurses could spend more time at patient bedsides, improving patient care and experiencing a lot more job satisfaction.

The Vocera badge also is helping the Orange County Library System in central Florida stretch resources and enhance services. The central facility is a 290,000-square-foot concrete building that takes up an entire city block in downtown Orlando, so enabling any kind of mobility for the 150-person staff was a real challenge.

"We had just upgraded our data network to Wi-Fi, and then we heard about this Vocera solution that was being used in hospitals," says Mary Anne Hodel, the library system's director and CEO. The price tag for rolling out Avaya Wi-Fi in the main facility and 13 branches, and deploying Vocera badges to key personnel was about $45,000.

No longer tethered to a particular station, staff members can help library patrons wherever there is a need. And they are instantly reachable when someone has a question that requires their particular knowledge set. "We've really ratcheted our customer service up a few notches," Hodel sums up.

SUNY-Cortland's Sidebottom says it's high time to get into the game. Start small and learn the different ways of implementing voice and other applications, and experiment with the various levels of security that are available. "The standards are coming. You need to position yourself to take advantage of the new technology that is emerging."

Learn more about this topic

Voice on WLANs turns corner

The wireless LAN industry is working hard to get 802.11-based networks in shape to accommodate the technical idiosyncrasies of VoIP. Network World on Wireless in the Enterprise, 04/05/04.

WiFi VoIP will take years to mature

A less optimistic view. Network World, 03/30/04.

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