VoWiFi-an abbreviation for voice over wireless fidelity-is another alphabet-soup name to remember. VoWiFi combines Wi-Fi's wireless advantages with voice over Internet protocol (VoIP). In a traditional VoIP setting, hardware and software is needed to allow the Internet to transmit and receive voice calls.

“It is a mobile way of making phone calls,” said Louis Holder, executive vice president of Product Development, Vonage. “The analog voice is converted into digital packets and then sent over a Wi-Fi connection in order to get to the Internet. It is a VoIP call that travels over a Wi-Fi network.”

The Wi-Fi tie-in makes VoWiFi suitable for PDAs and laptops. But why would someone use a PDA to make a wireless phone call over the Internet, instead of using his or her cell phone?

What are the benefits?

One of VoWiFi's benefits is better coverage indoors and out. It may help alleviate VoIP's poor sound quality and clarity, which has long been seen as the technology's main disadvantage.

Phone calls made through Wi-Fi network access are much cheaper than cell phone calls. In certain settings-such as medical centers and universities with large campuses where people are frequently mobile-VoWiFi is a practical solution.

Just like landline service, traditional VoIP keeps people chained to their desks. VoWiFi offers a better solution-nearly free mobile phone use. Everybody loves saving money.

Some cell phone providers tout plans that allow users under the same account to call each other for free, but the advertising is misleading. These “free” plans translate into an extra charge on your bill each month. VoWiFi allows free communication through the Wi-Fi network. Think of it as a commercial “family plan” housed and hosted internally.

Beyond that, many regard the combination of the technologies used to produce VoWiFi as the primary benefit since the tangible benefits are harder to see.

Major cell phone manufacturers, including Nokia, Motorola and Hewlett Packard, have started introducing VoWiFi phones, while others planning on doing so soon.

These phones make seamless transitions between Wi-Fi and cellular networks so that callers can communicate regardless of where they are, more than ever before. All it takes is some new equipment.

When in roam

Roaming is one of VoWiFi's potential pitfalls, partially because of Wi-Fi access points. The access points-key areas within the network that allow transmission, typically in the range of 300 feet and more commonly known as “hot spots”-back up the entire system.

When a mobile caller is using an access point connection and moves physically from the hot spot, he or she is in roam mode. For the call to continue, the phone would need to find a different signal. The caller would need a device that could immediately tap into a cellular network, since it is not feasible to have access points everywhere.

Still too new

High-quality VoWiFi is still too immature, and capacity planning is one of the main things that must be done-and done well-for the technology to become practical. With increased Wi-Fi network traffic, capacity and security breaches ultimately become serious issues. More traffic moving over a Wi-Fi network will usually mean more sensitive data is moving too.

A task force has been formed to help make certain voice traffic takes priority over data. Dropped calls are harder to quickly pick up, whereas slowed data transmission, though annoying, can be tolerated.

What to expect

Contractors may wonder where they fit in. When VoWiFi takes off, more people will need VoIP and Wi-Fi systems and access points installed. Both are required for this converged technology.

This is nascent technology-one would be hard pressed to find actual users-but Infonetics, a market research and consulting firm, reports 113,000 VoWiFi devices were sold in 2004 and predicts “a strong adoption rate through 2009.”

Someone is buying the technology and funding research for VoWiFi studies. Expect to hear more. EC

STONG-MICHAS, a freelance writer, lives in central Pennsylvania. She can be reached at JenLeahS@msn.com.