GCN INSIDER: BlackBerry meets VOIP; Mobile power to the people

BlackBerry 7100t

BlackBerry meets VOIP

Frustrated when your cellular phone call drops off as you enter the bowels of a government building? A little WiFi and some voice over IP could help. In a Herndon, Va., briefing room, officials for IP telephony vendor Avaya Inc. recently described the company's efforts to extend VOIP functions to cellular phones, including the popular-with-government BlackBerry handhelds. It's all part of the struggle for 'session persistence,' said Steve Waltrich, senior manager of Avaya's briefing program'ensuring calls (or data connections) stay intact as people move around from network to network.

The Basking Ridge, N.J., company has been working with Nokia of Finland to extend the capabilities of its Converged Communications Server to Nokia phones through what's called fixed-to-mobile convergence. Avaya also recently began doing the same for Research In Motion's BlackBerry 7270. Using the emerging Session Initiation Protocol, Nokia and BlackBerry handhelds could essentially become VOIP phones as they move from outdoor cellular coverage to indoor WiFi coverage. As long as the hand-off goes smoothly, the call shouldn't drop.

It sounded optimistic to one GCN editor. When a caller walks out of a building where his phone has been operating over the wireless LAN, it must automatically place a call to the cellular service provider of choice in order to maintain the connection. What happens, the editor asked, if the caller runs back into the building, then back out, then back in ...? Some of Avaya's own employees have similarly tried to trick the system where the company has tested it, Waltrich laughed. But he said the FMC technology worked.

Make no mistake, government adoption of this type of solution requires some doing. Agencies have the BlackBerry thing down pat, but to realize the full benefits of FMC, they would need to buy into wireless networking and VOIP, too. What's more, they'd need to decide who enjoys the benefits. If they want to extend session persistence to, for in- stance, agency visitors, it could require an open, public wireless network, either separate from or instead of a secure agency WLAN.

Or they could just build an internal wireless network that supports IP and cellular. See GCN writer Joab Jackson's story about in-building wireless networks, on this page.

Mobile power to the people

No one needs to tell you notebook computer batteries don't last all day. There's nothing like sitting at the press table at a Tom Davis hearing and scrambling for a power outlet so a GCN editor can keep working. Of course, there are no outlets in the deserts of the Middle East so soldiers carry extra batteries to keep their mobile communications up and running.

Many companies are developing fuel cell technologies to close the power gap between how long mobile devices actually run on a single charge and how long users want them to. Gregg Makuch, vice president of marketing at Neah Power Systems Inc. of Bothell, Wash., said his company is taking a unique approach to fuel cells, with $3.5 million from the Office of Naval Research. Neah is working to develop a fuel cell replacement for the BA-5590 lithium ion batteries common in the military. The Neah battery, Makuch said, could provide at least twice the capacity of the BA-5590.

Most fuel cell developers use something called a proton ex- change membrane, which is like a plastic sheet where electricity-generating reactions take place. (NASA has been using PEM fuel cells since the 1960s.) Much of what Makuch shared was highly technical, but in a nutshell, Neah feels PEM fuel cells, by design, have to be bigger (due to larger PEMs) in order to generate more power. And in fact PEM fuel cells are often too big to be highly portable. Neah's design calls for a porous silicon substrate to create a larger reaction area in a smaller space. Silicon is spread over a honeycomb structure and then etched with tiny pores to maximize its surface area. The result, if Neah is successful, could be more power in a smaller package. The company expects to have prototypes ready by the end of the year and to deliver its fuel cells to ONR in 2006. Makuch said Neah fuel cells for mainstream notebooks aren't likely until 2008.

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