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November 23, 2005

Toshiba readies WiFi VoIP phone

Having made inroads in the enterprise VoIP market during the past couple of years, Toshiba Corp is now readying to release its first wireless VoIP handset in the US as early as January.

By CBR Staff Writer

Toshiba isn’t talking specifics, but David Fridley, senior product manager at Toshiba America’ IP telephony unit confirmed it would be a WiFi-only VoIP handset.

The device means companies could set up their own WiFi infrastructure at worker’s locations, including campuses, remote offices and wireless access points at worker’s homes. This gives employee’s mobile voice and the company can control the network and coverage – unlike the case with cell phones.

A major advantage of a WiFi VoIP phone over a cell phone, however, is lower cost. A wireless VoIP phone would be more cost-effective than a cell phone for employees who work inside the office but would benefit from having voice when they’re away from their desk, Fridley said.

The device would make it affordable to give mobile access to certain employees who would not otherwise be considered the expense for cell phone access, he said.

VoIP also means companies can give employees’ mobile phones the same features as their desk phones, including the same auto attendant, Fridley said.

And mobile VoIP phones also could have video capability for collaboration, Fridley said. He pointed to Toshiba’s IP Video Communications System, launched in October.

The bottom line for WiFi VoIP is improved productivity and lower costs, depending, of course, on the enterprise users’ specific needs.

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But a limitation is that the device’s coverage is limited to where WiFi access is available. Fridley declined to comment on whether Toshiba is looking to build a VoIP phone that would access a range of networks, such as dual-mode phones that use both WiFi and cellular networks for greater coverage.

We’re looking to the operating system standard and SIP standard to be able to connect up to a variety of networks, Fridley said.

Companies should apply the same security practices they use for wireless data as for VoIP, Fridley said. In campus environments, companies can use WiFi-based encryption.

Toshiba is investigating the capability of a WiFi VoIP phone to run through a private VPN network, which promises greater security and, in some cases, better voice quality, Fridley said.

Just how many business customers Toshiba will find for its new WiFi phone is uncertain.

Toshiba launched its first business soft phone in 2003, which enabled users to make VoIP calls from their desktop and notebook computers. Its so-called SoftIPT effectively functioned like a regular phone and could place and receive calls to traditional phones. The following year Toshiba released a soft phone for PDAs.

In the US, large enterprises have been slower to adopt the technology than small- to medium-sized businesses, said Mac McGrath, director of sales of Toshiba America’s national account program.

For most of the SMEs, IP service has become a requirement for vendors, McGrath said. You’re not even in on the selling opportunity unless you have those capabilities in most of the small- to medium-sized business markets.

He reckons about 90% of the SME market is interested in IP, in part because of major advertising pushes by large companies, including Toshiba.

But businesses want to know how IP applies to their business, how it will save them money, make them money or increase efficiencies, McGrath said.

In the US, pure IP system purchases were relatively small this year, and represented roughly 7% of all communications systems purchases in the country, he said. The ones that are coming to buy an all IP solution tend to be the high-tech companies themselves, McGrath said. They’re buying it just because it is.

The vast majority, or 57%, of purchases were strictly traditional telephony. However, you had to have IP to talk to that manager, McGrath said. But in the end they didn’t see the necessity to pay the premium for that in the application they need currently.

Toshiba also had to guarantee these companies that their traditional application could be converted or converged into an IP system, he said.

Roughly 36% of enterprise VoIP purchases was used in hybrid deployments, a mix of VoIP and traditional telephony, McGrath said. Within this segment, IP telephony is often used for remote and mobile workers, while traditional phone service remains at headquarters.

After all, companies that have heavily invested in a large traditional phone system at headquarters are not going to forklift it out. They’re going to find a way to migrate [to VoIP], McGrath said.

It seems to be, at this particular point, that the use of IP in them marketplace is very much application driven.

However, applications that would drive widespread business VoIP adoption are yet to come, McGrath said.

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