Ready to Break the Cord?


One of the more interesting data points from our last round of benchmark research, based on interviews with more than 225 IT leaders, was the growing belief that we’re heading for an increasingly un-wired world. As smartphones, tablets, and laptops frequently become the computing platform of choice, IT managers are increasingly wondering if it makes sense to continue to invest in not only desktop PCs, but also wired voice infrastructure. One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is, “can I get rid of my desktop phones and just let everyone use their cell phone?”

The primary driver behind this idea is the often-exorbitant costs required for LAN upgrades to support prioritization of voice, and Power over Ethernet. Indeed, when we ask IT leaders what slows down their VOIP deployments, it’s not concerns over performance or reliability, it’s the cost of LAN upgrades. I’m reminded of a session a few years back at VoiceCon where during a discussion of the future of telephony and UC, an audience member stood up and said: “What you are talking about is great, but tell me how I can cut the costs of air conditioning my wiring closets.”

So given the still-high costs of Ethernet upgrades, it’s not surprising that there is growing interest in building the wireless-only enterprise. So far 11% of companies we interviewed have at least some employees who are 100% wireless (typically around 2-3%), numbers we expect to grow as we analyze our latest round of IT leader interviews that we conducted earlier this year. But while cutting the cord seems to make economic sense, there are plenty of concerns.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is simple network performance. Thanks to 802.11n modern WiFi networks are vastly improved in their ability to prioritize traffic types such as voice/video, and their ability to provide a higher level of bandwidth to multiple users. Distributed access point models mean that companies can cheaply provision a larger number of access points to ensure plenty of coverage. Still, the unwired enterprise may struggle to meet the needs of high-bandwidth applications such as high-definition video, remote storage, or large file transfer. As I’ve noted in the past, we’ve also seen growing concerns related to large bandwidth demands for tablet-based applications.

Another issue is simply quality. This is less of a concern on a QoS-enabled WiFi network, but I’m sure anyone reading this has suffered through the frustration that just one cell-phone user will bring to a large conference call. “Hang on while I switch to a land-line” is still a fairly common phrase in modern business communications. And few organizations would trust wireless performance for jobs where high quality voice communications are critical (e.g., customer service and support). We’ve already run into companies that have slowed or stopped softphone on PC deployments due to concerns related to voice quality. Adding public wireless services to the mix only serves to increase the variability of call quality.

Finally, there’s the issue of location awareness. E-911 is a growing concern among many of our clients. The need for a multi-line telephone system to report detailed caller location information (above and beyond a simple street address) to emergency services personnel is growing. While some vendors are delivering solutions to accurately track a WiFi user’s location inside of a company-owned facility, few enterprises have deployed this capability. And for those on a cell phone served by a public wireless network, I’ll note again that cell-phone GPS and triangulation-derived location information doesn’t provide altitude – meaning that an emergency services worker can locate your address, but in a multi-level building they will not be able to locate your floor.

So our advice to our clients is to certainly consider mobile-only solutions as an alternative to expensive desktop infrastructure, but also be aware of the limitations in terms of network performance, voice quality, and location awareness. While the ability to eliminate the expensive desktop phone is attractive, pay careful attention to wireless LAN architecture, and the specific needs of your users. Consider developing user profiles to determine which roles are best suited to wireless only. In the meantime, deploy 802.11n for all future WiFi installations while investigating technologies such as Femtocell to increase coverage density inside your buildings for public wireless services. The unwired enterprise is indeed growing, but general purpose replacement of wired infrastructure with wireless isn’t yet feasible for most.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.