Want a VoIP phone/device but you only have WiFi in your office? It might be time to invest in a new Ethernet connection. Sure, there are a number of devices able to provide VoIP service by running on WiFi; however, is this option really worth exploring? Truthfully, it would be hard pressed to say yes. Though WiFi powered devices might seem appealing to some, the truth of this attraction is much more circumstantial. More often than not, implementation is alluring due to external factors including office environment, limited resources, and other similar restrictions/limitations (lack of alternative power for connection). As such, many users turn to explore WiFi desktop phones—which seem to be a quick, cost efficient, and effective solution. While this mode isn’t abysmal, there are enough issues to make users question their enamorment.

Currently, there are a number of wireless VoIP phones available. As such, these devices, like all others, have an Ethernet port; however, here the port is NOT required to connect to LAN for service. Instead, the phone utilizes the built-in WiFi option, which requires a wireless access point to connect and register with a service provider or PBX. In doing this, WiFi desktop phones have the potential to spawn a number of benefits—i.e. mobility and compactness leading to increased productivity and efficiency. As such, many users believe WiFi can sustain desktop phones’ services and applications; however, the reality of it is much more complicated.

While these benefits can seem very attractive, there is one factor that users need concern themselves with: QUALITY. While VoIP typically provides users with exceptional quality, the service does have a very high sensitivity to network delays—i.e. jitter, packet loss, and latency. Separate from this, WiFi connections in and of themselves are typically less reliable (especially compared to an Ethernet connection). With that in mind, those looking to utilize WiFi phones should heavily consider every aspect of their wireless connection, as well as if and/or how the use of WiFi will and/or would affect call quality.

As such, it’s crucial that users determine the reliability and speed of their wireless connection. If a connection is slow and/or unreliable, call quality will undoubtedly suffer—i.e. WiFi powered desktop phones would be disastrous. Inversely, even fast and reliable connection can experience poor call quality. Voice quality is typically contingent with the amount of traffic being sent and received over your network. Yes, you can deploy a WiFi phone over the same network used to support laptops, printers, etc; however, in doing so, you may be overloading your wireless connection with a variety of traffic—i.e. voice, audio, video, data, etc. As such, WiFi desktop phones now have to compete to send voice data amidst everything else—which can bog down quality substantially, distorting calls to the point of inaudibility.

Aside from a quality connection, WiFi phone quality can also be affected by the standard in which the wireless connection runs on. WiFi desktop phones usually work with the physical layer IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) 802.11 standards (for implementing wireless local area network). As such, these standards allot for different bandwidth and use different frequencies. While users utilize these standards already (with laptops, mobile phones, etc.), the complexities of these physical layers (especially when compared to Ethernet) often augment vulnerabilities with voice transmission.

Regardless of all precautionary tales, some users may still feel as if their connection is good enough to sustain consistent call quality. Again, this is much more complicated. WiFi phones require a layer of technical management and surveillance that an average user might not be familiar with. In order for users to maintain call quality, voice traffic needs to be prioritized above all other types (video, data, audio, etc.)—which means users need to closely monitor the traffic between all IP connected devices. This is not only time consuming (not to mention almost impossible), but it also defeats some of the primary advantages of VoIP, namely increasing efficiency and productivity.

Though there are a number of irrefutable discrepancies with WiFi desktop phones, these devices often appeal to users due to feasible advantages (as stated above). For example, users with limited office space and/or an expansive staff roster may choose to utilize WiFi desktop phones as they take up less space (less hardware, no wires, cords, etc.) and they allow for much greater mobilization—users can travel, work from home, better engage co-workers/customers. Also, users can install phones where they couldn’t (or didn’t want to) run Ethernet cable. Outside of this, however, there is no real improvement over an Ethernet connection.

Simply put, a hardwire Ethernet connection is a direct connection; therefore, it is a superior form of desktop phone. A hardwire connection is typically faster and far more reliable; however, WiFi speed varies depending on the standard (802.11b, a, g, n). Typically, WiFi desktop phones work with 802.11b/g standards, which support bandwidth up to 11Mbps (megabytes per second) and 54 Mbps respectively. Inversely, Ethernet has progressed to speeds of 10 Gbps (gigabytes per second), or 1000 Mbps. Additionally, unlike WiFi, in which speeds vary depending on IEEE standard, Ethernet speed is set by your ISP (Internet Service Provider); therefore, there’s likely to be less fluctuations, and bandwidth loss.

Users want to be sure their phones are up and running with the utmost quality at all times. This is just not possible in using wireless connectivity powered phones. While this utilization has the potential to boost mobility, it’s ultimately counterproductive—as it has the same potential to hinder these advantages. Ultimately, I would advise against desktop WiFi phones, recommending use ONLY if absolutely necessary and on a network with the tiniest amount of data traffic. In smaller doses, this method isn’t terrible; it works just like a WiFi network; however, beyond this, large scale adoption is not advisable.

Additional Reading

Adventures in Wi-Fi: My Guide to Staying Connected
Finding “The Best” Anything – User Discretion Advised
Check Your Internet Speed Connection