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VoIP unwired

Voice and wireless Ethernet might seem an odd mix, but for mobile workers or hard-to-wire areas, it can be the perfect combo.

By Phil Hochmuth, Network World
July 28, 2003 12:05 AM ET

Network World - Converged voice/data network projects can be tough, especially if you can't use any wires. That's what Mike Burns, a systems integrator, discovered when a client asked him to provide voice and data services to a gold-mining operation in the middle of a Laotian jungle. Burns faced a sticky situation - literally.

"The ground was mostly mud, so we couldn't bury any cables, and there were no poles where we could hang wire," says Burns, who is president of Nationwide Computer Systems, an ISP and integration firm in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The solution would obviously be a wireless one: Burns used 802.11b gear to connect 50 IP phones, PCs, a router and satellite dish for the mining camp. The camp, which stretches over a two-mile area, consists of 20 structures for operations, living quarters and offices.

Wireless Ethernet certainly isn't the first infrastructure that experts recommend for carrying voice over IP (VoIP), but Burns and other users are finding 802.11 works fine for their IP telephony requirements. The combination of the technologies is proving useful for keeping mobile employees, such as hospital workers, in touch or for linking IP phones in areas where Category 5 cabling is hard to run.

Voice quality can be a major issue because Wi-Fi LANs are slow at 11M bit/sec, and in most cases, a shared medium, likened to 10Base-T hubs. The IEEE is creating standards to increase security and quality of service (QoS) on Wi-Fi - such as 802.11i and 802.11e - but widespread adoption of those technologies is still at least a year away.

While some users say IP voice quality is fine over Wi-Fi, others have adopted proprietary QoS features supplied by Wi-Fi and wireless IP phone makers to make sure of that. At the mining camp, where voice and data contend for Wi-Fi connections, Burns relies on router-based QoS.

Burns built a wireless VoIP network using an AltiGen Communications AltiServ IP PBX, Polycom IP phones, Lucent Wi-Fi access points - lashed to trees, Cisco hubs and a router, which connects to satellite equipment for outside communications. Hubs and Wi-Fi routers in the camp buildings connect the IP phones and connect to PCs for e-mail and mining data analysis. (More than a dozen gas generators power the network gear.)

Connecting the mining camp to the outside world was easy, Burns says. A satellite dish syncs up to a fiber connection in Germany, which ultimately runs to Nationwide's ISP point of presence in Florida. The hard part, he says, was connecting telephones down on the jungle floor for calls between buildings - or huts, as Burns calls them.

"There was no way we could have deployed a traditional PBX in this environment," he says.

"It was pretty out there," Burns says of the network, which is still operating. "I've thought about that project a lot, and there was no other way we could have done it."

Wi-Fi and VoIP, stat

At Mercy Medical Center in Roseburg, Ore., IT Director Nancy Laney could have given nurses regular phones or new pagers, but opted for wireless VoIP devices instead. The hospital uses wireless VoIP communications badge appliances from Vocera Communications.

Nurses wear the gadgets, about the size of TV remotes, around their necks with lanyards or pinned to their shirts. To reach someone, a nurse presses a button on the badge and scrolls through names in the system, then presses another button to talk. The voice signal travels to the recipient over the hospital's Wi-Fi infrastructure.

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