WiFi phones have a lot of potential, but right now they're not for everyone. Someone who has a cell phone and needs a phone line to support their DSL connection doesn't necessarily need yet another phone. Anyone who lives in an area with little WiFi availability might not find many places to use a WiFi phone. People who don't have a network of friends using the same VoIP service may find it cheaper to use a land line or cell phone.
But as more cities develop city-wide WiFi networks, WiFi phones will become more practical and useful. What currently seems like a novelty or a toy could become a replacement for a land line, a cell phone or both. It could happen pretty quickly -- the WiFi phone market increased by 76 percent in 2005, and researchers believe it will double in 2006 [Source: Infonetics Research].
WiFi phones are already useful on a smaller scale in businesses and schools. Many businesses have company-wide WiFi networks and VoIP phone service, making WiFi phones a potential replacement for desk phones. Students who live on college campuses that have extensive WiFi networks can also use WiFi phones to make calls for little to no money.
In spite of all its promise, the technology is still new, and WiFi networks aren't yet prevalent enough to make the phones practical for everyone. Users have also reported some quirks in newly-released phones that make using them a little tricky. For example, some phones reset every time the user moves to a new wireless network or every time an administrator makes a change to an existing network. Some WiFi hotspots require a Web browser to sign in. Phones without a built-in browser are useless in these locations.
Even though VoIP doesn't use a lot of bandwidth, other uses for public and corporate WiFi networks do. Sharing bandwidth with a lot of other traffic can result in poor voice quality or lost signals. Fortunately, quality-of-service requirements can be built in to new WiFi networks. With the right hardware and software, a hotspot can separate and prioritize the voice traffic, treating it as a separate signal and providing better voice quality.
While they're currently more like toys than tools, WiFi phones will probably become a lot more popular as WiFi networks spread. For more information on WiFi, telephones, cell phones and related technology, see the links on the next page.