Intel-Cisco deal may be big for Wi-Fi

A joint development project announced this week at Fall Intel Developer Forum (IDF) by Intel Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc. could have significant effects on enterprise wireless LANs.

The companies want to ensure that Wi-Fi WLANs deliver good voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) quality and as much data capacity as possible, high-level executives of Intel and Cisco said Tuesday. With their domination of the PC and network equipment industries, the partners are well positioned to make those capabilities widespread even if they aren't blessed by a formal standards group, according to industry analysts.

The Business Class Wireless Suite, planned to become available in the first half of next year, is the first part of a broad initiative by Intel and Cisco to improve the Wi-Fi experience in both homes and enterprises. The companies were vague about that broader project but gave some details about the first two results of their cooperation, both of which will be aimed at business users.

With the VoIP technology, Intel Centrino chip sets in notebook PCs using the upcoming Napa architecture will be able to reserve capacity on a Wi-Fi access point and communicate the need for packet prioritization to guarantee call quality, said Dave Hofer, director of marketing for Intel's wireless networking group. On a standard Wi-Fi network, a VoIP call has to contend with all the other data packets being exchanged by one or more users, and sound quality can suffer.

The aim is to let enterprises offer reliably good voice quality over WLANs. Intel may also work with other vendors to help users get the most out of the new VoIP capabilities, Hofer said. In the first instance of this, Avaya Inc. announced at IDF that it will optimize its IP Telephony Softphone for Centrino laptops using the Napa architecture. With the Avaya softphone, the Business Class Wireless Suite will deliver even better call quality, he said.

The other technology in the works could bring even bigger changes. It lets network managers use the amount of available capacity on an access point, rather than just the strength of the radio signal, as a factor in assigning each user to an access point. That means that if the access point nearest a user is overloaded with other connected clients, the user can be automatically hooked up with another nearby access point. This is already possible with many enterprise Wi-Fi systems, including new Cisco products acquired in its purchase of Airespace Inc., Hofer said. But the technology that Intel and Cisco are developing puts more intelligence on the client and allows for real-time moves as conditions in the network change, he said.

Both new technologies are coming specifically to Intel's Napa platform and new Cisco network gear, Hofer said. They could later find their way into the Cisco Compatible Extensions program, under which many vendors add capabilities to their Wi-Fi gear to work with Cisco networks, and into formal industry standards, he said.

The features eventually need to be standardized so they can become available to all users, analysts said. This is also in the two companies' interests, they said. Within six months to two years, Intel and Cisco will submit their technology to a standards body for ratification, predicted IDC analyst Abner Germanow. After all, Intel wants to promote the use of notebooks for voice, and both companies want to drive the use of Wi-Fi as much as possible, he said.

"At some point, it needs to be bigger than the two of them in order to really drive the goals of this endeavor," Germanow said.

However, with Intel dominating PCs and Cisco holding about 60% of the enterprise WLAN market, according to research company Dell'Oro Group Inc., the new technology will become widespread in any case, analysts said.

"People are going to buy this stuff without even knowing it," Germanow said.

The companies are taking aim at the right problems, according to analysts.

WLANs lag behind wired networks because they have been designed for range and signal strength rather than ample capacity, which is what users really need, said Craig Mathias, principal at advisory and systems integration company Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass. The 802.11 standards don't give clients any way to tell which access points have available network capacity. For network administrators, that means a lot of uncertainty, Mathias said. While on a wired network they can decide how many clients to plug into a switch, on a standard WLAN, they can't control how many clients try to use a given access point.

In addition, reliable voice quality on Wi-Fi PCs will become a critical need, Germanow predicted. Most enterprises won't buy specialized Wi-Fi phones but instead will put softphones on employees' notebook PCs, he said. Most business calls in an office aren't made while walking around, according to Germanow. And some college students already commonly use notebooks for voice calls on Skype Technologies SA's VoIP service and on voice-capable instant messaging systems, he said.

"These aren't functions that people need today, but they're functions that will support where a lot of enterprise customers want to go," Germanow said.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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