Voice over WLAN is getting noticed by the SMB set lately, especially businesses with locally mobile workers that find that VoWLAN can be a great technology to boost productivity and employee satisfaction. Its a segment with promise for those channel partners willing to put in the education work necessary to understand the solution.
All the WLAN vendors have new products targeted to SMBs, who will be among the biggest adopters of dual-mode phones and VoWLAN in general, says Henry Dewey, an analyst at Forrester Research. In fact, 23 percent of them say they are already using or piloting VoWLAN. Some of that may be BlackBerry usage, rather than calls, but bottom line, a lot of them are using those phones.
For a channel partner selling into the SMB market, a top recommendation for VoWLAN, like most technologies, is recognizing the business need at hand.
When it comes to the SMBs, only about a third of them do a financial ROI when looking at a new technology, explains Dewey. They look at whether it makes the boss happy, salespeople more productive, employees happier, that kind of thing.
The applicability of VoWLAN in the SMB space is bolstered by the rise of the corridor warrior the salesperson, business owner or manager who roams the hallways of a small business, in meetings most of the day, almost always away from his or her desk. VoWLAN allows those people to be available via four-digit dialing, the Wi-Fi phones simply moveable extensions on the IP PBX.
Real estate or insurance agents, for instance, dont want to miss that one call because theyre having a sandwich in the cafeteria. And consider the receptionist, who needs to be reachable even when grabbing a cup of coffee. Also, customer support organizations can gain the flexibility to walk around and still serve callers.
Employees are freer to collaborate instead of isolating themselves at their desks, says Ben Guderian, vice president of wireless marketing at Polycom Inc., which offers a Wi-Fi handset via subsidiary SpectraLink Corp. Job satisfaction for employees is improved by reducing the amount of time they waste playing phone tag, giving them mobility in the office, and allowing flexibility in the workplace design.
There are other typical use cases. For instance, lumberyards have a use for VoWi- Fi for the back lot, where theres typically shoddy cellular coverage. Nonetheless, the dispatchers and workers need to remain in touch. Retail situations are another prototypical example: Imagine how wireless voice could improve the floor processes at a cavernous home improvement store, where in-building cellular coverage is all but impossible to propagate.
Another one is car dealerships, says Dewey. Chances are, a service adviser is not by the phone, and the service guy is hopefully working on the car. You dont want to give everyone cell phones, but they need something where they can be locally mobile. This is perfect for that.
Conversely, some businesses would not be ideal targets, like a dentists office. You dont want something going off while hes drilling in your mouth, says Dewey. But small professional services firms, where theyre always in meetings, or anywhere you have high mobility within an office, theres a need there. Its not really about the size of the business that matters, its the benefits it brings to each case. Bottom line, its about improving the quality of the work they do.
VOWLAN-DING THE SALE
Since the VoWLAN sale is so consultative, relying as it does on case-by-case evaluations of individual business needs, channel partners can bring a lot to the table. But knowing what to offer is the first step to landing the sale.
To begin with, there are three general components to a VoWLAN solution the IP PBX, the WLAN infrastructure and the devices themselves. On the PBX side, SMBs can have a SIP server or an IP PBX on premises, or go with a hosted version. Wi-Fi devices use standard SIP to communicate with server.
The WLAN infrastructure itself then needs to be evaluated for its ease of deployment and operations, security and QoS mechanisms.
The RF space is channelized, which can require planning to minimize interference, intense configuration and ongoing finetuning. Also, since Wi-Fi uses unlicensed spectrum, neighbors may have access points installed too, prompting the need to make sure the spectrum is available and managed appropriately.
However, many SMBs dont want to hire an RF engineer. Merus infrastructure requires no RF configuration, planning or tuning, says Kamal Anand, senior vice president of marketing and corporate strategy at WLAN infrastructure vendor Meru Networks. Its really important to take a look at the equipment to see how it makes SMBs lives easier, because they dont have the money or time to put into large-scale configurations.
Quality of service is always a concern for business communications. When you have phones, laptops and data clients all communicating at once, just prioritization for voice calls isnt enough, says Anand. When you have multiple people talking at the same time, you need contention management to reduce the number of collisions over the air, to make sure voice calls are clear. You manage, behind the scenes, who speaks when.
Similarly, security is an area to evaluate. Its gotten a lot better, but the standards are not 100 percent settled, cautions Dewey. You can do call access control in various ways to make sure it really works, and Cisco, for example, goes beyond the standards. There are also active security solutions, but they can be a nightmare to configure. But weve definitely crossed from the world of the unknown and unsure to the reasonably understood, and security is less of a gating factor than it once was.
Then there are devices; the debate over whether to deploy single-mode and dualmode cellular/Wi-Fi handsets is ongoing. Single-mode makes sense for SMBs who dont need or want desk phones, because it saves on wiring costs and the cost of moves, adds and changes. This is particularly true in a greenfield environment, where the cost of stringing cables and installing wall jacks in an office facility is not trivial. Also, switching to VoIP in general offers lower calling costs.
For SMBs using VoIP anyway, toll savings dont really accrue unless the company implements dual-mode devices, which makes sense for those companies with employees who travel outside the four walls of the company HQ on a regular basis. These phones allow users to offload cellular calls to the VoWLAN when available, saving on cellular airtime. In most use scenarios, the must-have device is not some rugged, expensive mobile terminal, says Richard Nedwich, senior manager for voice technology strategy and planning for the enterprise mobility business within the network and enterprise division for Motorola Inc. More likely, its a cell phone. Now add Wi-Fi capability to cell phones, and provide single number, single mailbox, better indoor coverage and outdoor access to applications, all under IT control.
Forresters Dewey, however, questions the need for dual-mode. Right now, you can do call park, because VoIP is tied to a SIP server, so you can put a call on hold and pick it up on cellular, Wi-Fi or wired, as long as its a single number hook-in with the IP PBX, he says. With seamless handover, you might pass the phone call back and forth several times a minute, if you walk by a window where the cell signal is stronger, for instance. We dont really know how that affects quality of service or toll bypass.
Another option is softphones, which might make sense until handset prices come down. Handsets are still expensive, says Peter Thornycroft, Aruba Networks director of product management. Until recently, street prices have been in the order of $500. However, a new generation of handsets will bring prices down to the $200 range. Also, technology is improving, particularly in areas such as QoS, battery life and security capabilities.
VIEW FROM THE VAR
Taken in aggregate, VoWLAN solutions tend to be complicated a typical Wi-Fitelephony deployment may require expertise in WLANs, mobile computers, professional services like site surveys, site verification, device provisioning and management, PBX configuration and gateway installation and configuration.
Hardware and software vendors will present customers with many options, but resellers should understand their customers needs and recommend the best solution for a given situation, says Motorolas Nedwich. For example, if you know your customer wants to deploy a softphone solution, then what?
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To illustrate that point, consider a hypothetical: Symbol Technologies might recommend SIP as a generic solution and identify several Symbol ISVs that offer solutions today. In this example, you could communicate to the customer that there are five strong offerings on the market, but of these, only three are validated by Symbol, says Nedwich. And based on my knowledge of your business, I suggest option two. Here is what it will take to deploy, and what services I will offer you to make sure it goes smoothly.
That leaves the channel partner in the position of being a trusted adviser, but also requires a large bit of education in order to fulfill the role well (see tips for success below).
Several companies are trying to simplify things for partners by offering SMB-focused packages. Meru has an arrangement with Sotto Wireless, an MVNO in the Northwest. They provide the wireless data and voice plan, and a hosted PBX, explains Merus Anand. They package up our solutions for WLAN, and a Nokia E60-series phone, and the VAR provisions everything. I think well see that model increasing in terms of providing for the SMB.
Nortel Networks meanwhile has launched the My Business campaign for its partners looking to target SMBs. My Business offers packages including integrated voice and data, mobility and unified messaging, which are built specifically for SMBs.
SMBs need an all-in-one solution that combines call control, wireless and routing and switching, says Chris Kozup, manager of mobility solutions at Cisco Systems Inc. The solution must provide simplified management and offer robust security. To that end, Cisco recently announced the Cisco Mobility Express solution of wireless products that are designed specifically for the SMB market. Mobility Express is a part of the Smart Business Communications System announced in early April, which combines unified communications with wired and wireless networks under a single, simplified management framework.
VARs that do their homework potentially can take the next step. Kozup says the Wi-Fi WLAN technology also offers opportunities for VARs to host equipment, driving services from their own data centers: This is a trend that the large service providers are actively planning for, where they host business software as well as communications services Web storefronts, e-mail services, business applications software (spreadsheets, word processing, presentation and graphics software), as well as a self-service Web front-end so the SMB can quickly order and reconfigure services from their premises.
TIPS FOR SUCCESS
Selling VoWLAN to SMBs can be a complex process. Learning Wi-Fi telephony takes time, and should not be entered into lightly, explains Motorolas Richard Nedwich. Resellers need to learn the various technologies required to implement a VoWLAN solution. It is a combination of networking, mobile computing, wireless LAN and telecommunications infrastructure. It is still relatively rare to find a reseller with this combination of skill sets. Fortunately, Nedwich says there are a few ways to improve your chances for success. Here are a few:
1. Learn the basics first. Become familiar with the terms, solution components and deployment scenarios. Most importantly, learn what you dont know. Seek specialized training from vendors or IT workshops to fill the gaps you have identified.
2. Consider partnering with another VAR that offers complementary skills, and share the account. You might focus on telecom infrastructure, such as gateways and PBX devices, while a data-centric VAR works on mobile computers and WLAN infrastructure.
3. Expect customers to demand data first and voice later. Typically, there is a data requirement (such as price/stock check, store performance, medicine administration, e-mail and so on) which requires a WLAN and justifies the expense of a mobile solution. Offer voice as a feature, to help close a deal, or differentiate against a competing reseller. Or, offer voice as an upsell to existing accounts.
4. Offer an annual maintenance service, and make sure your customer understands why this is important. Wi-Fi telephony deployments are dynamic, not static. Once deployed, it can and does change. Setting expectations early is a key to success.
5. Look for VoWLAN opportunities from companies seeking new mobile computers, new software, or additional professional services like a site survey.
|Aruba Networks www.arubanetworks.com
Cisco Systems Inc. www.cisco.com
Forrester Research www.forrester.com
Meru Networks www.merunetworks.com
Motorola Inc. www.motorola.com
Nortel Networks www.nortel.com
Polycom Inc. www.polycom.com
Sotto Wireless www.sottowireless.com
SpectraLink Corp. www.spectralink.com