Cutting the Cord in VoIP

by Dave Michels




Here is an apparent contradiction: Quarter over quarter enterprise line shipments are down 22%, yet mobile phones represent one of the fastest growing segments in technology despite the recession. Many of the PBX makers have designated “Mobility” as a critical application for switch makers. Yet, despite this information; a good wireless solution for the PBX remains elusive.

Part of the problem is terminology. This is the industry that thinks it is perfectly understandable that IP technologies (VoIP) are not to be confused with digital technologies. Yes, a strange happenstance that seems to happen regularly in telecom; a term understood by many is reclassified to a very specific meaning. The omnipresent cloud in telecom diagrams should not be confused with cloud telephony, and cordless technologies are not to be confused with wireless or even mobile phones.

It turns out that many of the PBX makers actually get mobile phones pretty well. The ability to make a cell phone quite literally a PBX extension is becoming increasingly popular. The services tend to work very nicely and ironically increases the value of the cell phone more than the PBX. But that is a separate post. But the concept of cordless and wireless phones, a direct device on the PBX remain expensive and limited.

Cordless phones tend to represent analog or digital solutions and are similar to cordless phones available for the residential market. The digital variants are available from major radio companies such as Polycom/Sprectralink and some switch makers such as Toshiba. These phones generally work very well, but are expensive. They are typically (though not always) limited to the range of one base station. But more importantly they are waning in popularity because analog and digital ports are waning in popularity.

Enter the wireless phone; which typically comes in two flavors; Wi-Fi and Dect. These systems usually can be expanded,additional bases increase range. These are the logical winners in the marketplace – VoIP is growing, mobility is growing, and the systems are expandable. They probably are growing, which would not be hard to do. The story here is that there is a huge void in this marketplace; better selection is drastically needed.

In the VoIP world, there are two basic technologies – both are highly limited and expensive. The two technologies are Wi-Fi and DECT. Personally, I am partial to the DECT solutions. Wi-Fi has the benefit of a single infrastructure for wireless computers and phones. Wi-FI management and technologies have come a long way with improved security and manageability. However, Wi-Fi isn’t a great solution for voice. The technology tends to drain batteries quickly, and the standards are very limited around voice prioritization. DECT technologies are fairly young in the US, but mature world-wide. DECT phones are typically IP to the base(s), and proprietary DECT from the base to the phone(s). DECT requires new or separate voice infrastructure, but offers clarity and distance without the big hit on the battery.

I haven’t seen them all, but I find most wireless phones difficult to use. I don’t see an easy transfer key or a decent speaker. To transfer a call usually involves soft keys and menus which seems silly to me.

The big problem is a bit chicken and egg. No one brand has big enough quantities to drive down prices, and prices are so high that the technology remains limited. Wireless phones are not just a cord free option on a telephone – many factors impact their usability. Consider the phone’s weight, durability, accessories (holster/clips, headsets, etc.), human factors (screen size/fonts, steps involved in transferring a call, quality/size of keypad…), codec support and sound quality, speaker phone quality, etc. These factors are not major differentiators among desk phone choices but make/break factors in wireless phones. Personally, I have yet to find the perfect wireless phone, but here are some models to choose consider:


Motorola: Mostly geared to the Enterprise, Motorola has a very strong Wi-Fi solution benefitting from strong Wi-Fi technologies and phone expertise acquired from Symbol and Vocera. Symbol made one of the first Wi-Fi phones on the market, utilizing proprietary technology in their access points. Symbol discontinued the product, but was soon acquired by Motorola which brought it back. Vocera is best known for their “Star Trek” communicator style badges. Motorola and Vocera offer a single phone with PTT instant commnications over Wi-Fi.

Ascom: Ascom offers both DECT and Wi-Fi phones in various models typically privately branded. Their SIP solutions utilize a gateway to deliver advanced features specific to various PBX systems. As with the Motorola phones, they have a wide range of handsets; some specifically made for medical institutions.

Cisco/Linksys: Linksys has a couple of models designed for SOHO users typically using a hosted service.

Polycom/Spectralink: Very popular in the enterprise; lots of history with cordless digital phones. Polycom acquired Spectralink a few years back and keep their name on these products due to its stellar reputation. The Polycom/Spectralink phones tend to use a gateway that works with specific Wi-Fi controllers to ensure quality and voice prioritization. The solution tends to be very expensive, but works nicely.

Nokia: Nokia was one of the first cellular companies to embrace Wi-Fi VoIP capabilities on their phones, they’ve extended their work into non-cellular phones. They tend to be simple SIP phones, that don’t require specialized access points or gateways.

UtStarcom: UtStarCom was one of the first companies to offer broad SIP based Wi-Fi phones. The F1000 is a very basic entry-level phone has been on the market for years.


Polycom Kirk: These quirky phones from Kirk Telecom (UK) were acquired by Polycom a few years ago. The phones are much more European than other Polycom phones(such as an R key). Some things about the Kirk phones are impressive such as their use of POE in the base units and some things odd such as they only support one line.

Astra: Aastra offers a range of solutions from consumer grade to enterprise including some DECT handsets partnered to corded telephones. The high-end solutions are very expensive and geared toward Enterprise use.I have not seen the Aastra phones yet, but they appear mid priced with POE bases which makes them worth a look (soon).

Siemens Gigaset: New in the US, the phones have found a quick following. They are aimed clearly at the consumer space. Michael Graves got an early model for evaluation and blogged about it here.

Snom: Snom was one of the first with an affordable DECT solution called the M3. I had one briefly. I found the phone crystal clear with excellent range, but generally unusable largely due to its keypad. I found my conclusion was not unique.

What I want in a cordless/wireless phone:

  • DECT – has better range, clarity, and battery consumption.
  • POE Bases
  • Bases/phones that enable handoff to additional wired bases – any size footprint
  • Easy one touch access to hold, transfer, and mute
  • Decent speaker phone
  • Decent keypad – easily press individual buttons – not so small so you hit multiple buttons
  • Headset jack (2.5mm cell phone style, not Rj-11)
  • Lighted keypad
  • Shared directory
  • A little bigger than most cell phones
  • A unit that can stand up.
  • Multi-Line capability
  • HD Voice/wideband Audio
  • Speaker phone should be useable for 2 way intercom
  • Reasonable price points: Bases
  • Integrated belt clip (not via optional cases)