Voice over Wi-Fi has had a high level of hype this year, particularly from vendors of Wi-Fi switches. Their pitch (involves using voice over free office Wi-Fi instead of expensive cellphone minutes) is immature for the corporate market, if only because of the price of the handsets. However, the handsets are becoming more practical, and the technology is now well worth trying out. If nothing else, excitement around it could cause operators will respond (as they have through the history of voice over IP and IP telephony, by cutting prices to make the move less attractive. Putting Wi-Fi through a corporation is an expensive way to try voice on Wi-Fi. Much easier to get experience with a standalone handset, such as the WISIP phone from Pulver Innovations - which Steve Gold has been trying. Editor

I came to the WiSIP phone from Pulver Innovations as an upgrade to my previous use of voice over broadband, to allow me to use my 802.11b (WiFi network) in and around the home office for Internet telephony calls. It turns out it does more than this, allowing cheap calls out to regular phone numbers from any public wi-Fi hotspot.

The WISIP phone is manufacturered in Japan and imported to the West by various people, although Pulver - a VOIP advocate from way back - does the best package I am aware of, bundling it with a subscription to its own Free World Dial-up (FWD) Internet telphony service.

Out of the box, the handset comes pre-programmed with access to FWD, but can also be set up to access other IP telephony gateway services such as the UK-based service by Telappliant. IP telephony gateways, such as FWD and Telappliant, are what take the legwork out of programming and using this sort of telephone. They use the SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) to link up different users. You dial the virtual phone number (usually in North American xxx-xxx-xxxx format) and the gateway maps this to the relevant SIP device. Other gateway services include Fordyce, launched in 2003.

Gateways are what make the VoIP world go around - instead of VoIP users having to use static and/or dynamic IP addresses, they dial a virtual phone number, and the gateway routes the call appropriately. And, in case you're wondering, regular phone line users can dial the virtual phone number and have their call routed to your IP phone.

Why go Voice over WIFI?
Internet telephony is getting quite popular, mainly because its users can make and receive calls for free across the Internet. Services like Free World Dialup and Iaxtel (www.iaxtel.com) also allow users to outdial on to the regular phone network in a growing number of countries, at discount rates.

Here in the UK, we have the luxury of some of the lowest national and international calling rates in the world, but even so, VoIP dialup rates are equally competitive, typically costing two pence a minute or less for a UK or popular global calling destination.

You can even outdial from the Internet and use a third-party discount telephony carrier such as www.18866.co.uk, which has a freephone access number in the UK, and offers calling rates of just one pence per minute for UK landline calls, and most popular foreign call destinations, subject to a one pence per call connection fee. You could, for example, be at a coffee shop in Germany, and place a WiSIP call over the Internet, outdialling to a UK landline user and pay just 11 pence for a 10 minute conversation. (a colleague has done this).

Contrast this with the rates charged for international and/or roaming calls on a typical cellular phone. Of course, a cellphone can make or receive calls anywhere there is a cellular signal, which accounts for 96 per cent of the UK. With a WiSIP phone, you need a local - and available - WiFi signal.

But it's cheap - phenomenally cheap - to use the WiSIP phone, which effectively replaces a regular DECT cordless for use in and around the home or office, and augments a cellphone when out and about. Most users of the WiSIP phone will almost certainly continue to use a cellphone to receive their incoming calls, but the WiSIP phone allows free or very cheap outbound voice calls to be made when in range of a WiFi network.

High quality calls
Despite its diminutive looks - the phone looks like one of the latest cellphones, although it weighs in about 40 per cent heavier at 120 grams - the WiSIP phone is an impressive beast. The handset supports G.711 (64K) and G.729a (8K) codec speeds, with the former giving a full-frequency quality to voice calls rarely seen on the landline network. The latter codec gives a call quality similar to that of a regular mobile phone.

The handset runs for just over 24 hours on standby, and gives you around three hours of talk time, which is not as good as a cellphone, but remember this is a first generation voice over WiFi device.

Criticisms? A few. The handset only supports WEP (64/128-bit encryption) and not WPA, which means the encryption is fairly weak, and it only knocks out around 60 milliwatts, despite its 1350 mAh lithium battery. This is about a tenth the maximum ERP of a GSM hand portable, but is still enough to reach around 200 metres from a WiFi access point.

The other slight downside is that Pulver will spring you for $75.00 for shipping the phone to the UK, although this is via Federal Express, which takes 2/3 days to arrive from the US.

The charging cycle on the handset takes around 60 minutes or so, so most users will probably need to charge the mobile every night. The supplied plug is US-style, although you'll be relieved to hear the AC input is 110 to 240 volts, so UK mains power works just fine.

Setting up the phone to use WiFi access points is a doddle, using the keypad of the handset and the intuitive menu. We found that the handset can use unsecured WiFi access points when out and about. In most major city areas, it's difficult not to find an unsecured access point and, quite frankly, the current public access WiFi networks such as BT Openzone do not make the WiSIP phone economic to use instead of cellular, unless you're making an international call.

If you're into WiFi, you could do a lot worse than look at www.freenet-uk.com, which offers $40.00 a month (around #22.00) via the Airpath Alliance. This $40.00 a month deal gives users roaming access to several US and European WiFi networks - including BT Openzone.

For heavy cellphone users located in city areas, the WiSIP phone is an interesting alternative to a regular GSM handset. And, although you'll probably still need a cellular phone for use when outside a WiFi coverage area, it's a fun way of saving money and also chatting cordlessly on the Internet.

OUR VERDICT

No-one is going to equip a corporate salesforce with these. It is a "first generation" product and, at £180 including shipping, will not pay for itself until the next generation of SIP phones arrives. However, the WISIP is sufficiently advanced for the technophiles in the organisation to get SIP/Wi-Fi experience, or for lone wolves who make a lot of calls to save money while exploring VoIP.