So, what is Nortel up to in wireless? Over the last few months, the company seems to have launched just about every kind of Wi-Fi product you can imagine, placing itself firmly on both sides of every fence in the 802.11 landscape.

The last announcement, of voice on wireless kit based on Airespace equipment, brings the network giant's office Wi-Fi solutions up to four, at our count. We decided to get a director of marketing to explain why.

Nortel's options
Here's the four ways to Wi-Fi, according to Nortel.

  • Standalone solution For small Wi-Fi requirements, there's the standalone 2220 access point.

  • Hybrid solution For larger networks, Nortel has its own wireless security switch, the 2250, to control access points from, essentially a similar approach to Bluesocket.
  • Mesh solution More unusual, this one, and launched in 2003, its dual-band access points use 802.11a for backhaul to an 802.11b network, dispensing with wires altogether.
  • Adaptive Solution The new arrival, based on Nortel's deal with Airespace for switches, and Spectralink for handsets, gives it an IP Telephony over WLAN solution, embodied in the WLAN Handsets 2210 and 2211 and the Airespace-based switch

Talk to other vendors, and you'll find each of these solutions put forward as a solution to replace any of the others - except possibly the mesh architecture, which is intended for specialised applications such as temporary networks or wide open spaces.

So why is Nortel doing all of them? Is it indecisive, or are all these solutions really necessary in the market? Diane Schmidt, director of marketing for switching at Nortel certainly thinks so.

"What you use depends on how much the wireless network is integrated into your critical business," she explains. "A lot of people buy the standalone solution, using traditional access points and cards." This is better in the smaller company, or even in larger enterprises where people are dipping their toe in the water, perhaps by "unwiring" a conference room.

More access points means more control. "We've had a security switch on the market for about a year; it gives additional security functions."

The new voice products are intended for specialised vertical markets, she said. "They're for customers where Wi-Fi is mission critical: they need it for voice and data and are mobile. They want it over a single infrastructure and they want to monitor the air space. They want connections to stay as they roam."

The main technology types are not only complementary, but they may also be necessary in one company, she says. "You could find two or three different types being used throughout campus, perhaps the hybrid, the mesh and the adaptive solution." Even that won't do it all, since branches need to have their own separate network. "The branch will operate with the standalone solution since it won't need its own centrally managed wireless network."

What's the payback of Wi-Fi voice?
Nortel made big claims earlier this year for the savings to be made by putting voice over Wi-Fi (claiming it would make $28 million on a $6 million investment). Most of these savings are based on replacing expensive cellphone calls, often made in a company building, with voice over Wi-Fi

This pitch is seen as a bit simplistic since, for one thing the cost of Wi-Fi handsets can easily wipe out savings.

Schmidt concedes that the Wi-Fi handsets Nortel sells cost $695, including a charger, and agrees that the payback won't be simple: "It's not just cellphone arbitrage, it's the total cost of ownership," she says. "It can help enterprises reduce the devices they deliver to people. Give them only a laptop, or only a PDA with phone abilities. You no longer have to have laptop, cellphone etc."

Adoption will also be driven by the benefits to IT managers, in only having one network to manage. "The operational cost savings can far exceed other savings," she said.

It's also a pitch which does best in vertical markets, like hospitals, where people can't use their cellphones anyway.

More changes in the future
Nortel is aiming at people's different requirements at the moment, and as things mature will try offering even more different things.

"We are working with carriers along all these lines," says Schmidt. "As demand begins to grow in the enterprise, we will develop managed services."