New standard could give Wi-Fi a voice

A group of suppliers has requested permission to create a fast roaming study group within the IEEE standards body, which will...

A group of suppliers has requested permission to create a fast roaming study group within the IEEE standards body, which will work on handover between wireless access points with a view to creating a standards effort to allow office Wi-Fi networks to handle voice calls.

The IEEE already has a quality of service standard, 802.11e in progress, which can prioritise voice packets over data, but the new proposal is needed for the separate issue of handling phone calls when users move between access points within a wireless network.

The original 802.11 Wi-Fi standard specified that users should be able to move to a different access point, but this "roaming" creates a brief interruption in the data stream.

Ironically, the break has been made worse by security features implemented on Wi-Fi networks. When a user moves from one access point to another while making a voice call, an encrypted tunnel must be broken down through one access point and reformed through the new one; if this process takes more than 50 milliseconds, the user will hear a break in the voice conversation. Suppliers have reported handover times of more than 70 milliseconds.

"With the new security of 802.11i, there is a feeling that roaming has been slowed down and needs to receive a kick in the pants," said Harry Simpson, vice president of marketing at Airespace, a wireless switch company which specialises in voice over Wi-Fi, and a member of the study group.

The group will start work on its proposed standard directly; the IEEE's bureaucracy cannot officially launch the standards project until the 802 executive committee has approved the "project authorisation request" issued by the study group, and passed it to its standards committee for final approval in March.

"Airespace is involved, because we agree that without a standard in this area there will be a pile of proprietary ways to do this," said Simpson. "This affects VoIP handsets most severely today, but all 802.11 devices are affected to one degree or another."

He added that it also affects applications differently, depending how tolerant they are to interruptions to the data flow.

Cisco Systems has planned its own proprietary answer, in the form of extensions to its wireless products, and others have implemented different handover mechanisms.

Simpson hoped that the proposed standard will iron out these differences. Other companies who have expressed interest in IEEE discussion groups include Symbol Technologies and Intel.

Peter Judge writes for

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