Mobile Carriers Weave Wi-Fi

By Ed Sutherland

May 17, 2002

Cellular companies like Cingular, Verizon, Nextel, and VoiceStream are experimenting with Wi-Fi to see if mobile phones networks can work with WLANs to keep you constantly connected.

Once viewed as mortal enemies, cell phones and wireless LANs are joining forces in hopes a truce will benefit all concerned. Upstart Wi-Fi operators see established mobile carriers as vital for expansion, while VoiceStream, Cingular and other carriers see Wi-Fi as a way to reach users of lucrative data services.

The truce between carriers and Wi-Fi was marked recently when both Boingo Wireless founder Sky Dayton and VoiceStream CEO John Stanton were keynote speakers at CTIA Wireless 2002.

Dayton, whose company is the largest aggregator of public Wi-Fi access, told the gathering that the integration of Wi-Fi and cell networks is a case of "you got your chocolate in my peanut butter" and that while hot spots are growing in airports, coffee shops and other public areas, for companies such as Boingo to flourish, they will need to partner with wireless carriers with extensive network capacity.

In December 2001 Sprint PCS invested $15 million in Boingo, saying it was very bullish on the Wi-Fi company.

VoiceStream was one of the first wireless carriers to fold Wi-Fi into its business plan. In January, VoiceStream finalized its purchase of bankrupt fixed-wireless firm MobileStar Networks. As part of the purchase, VoiceStream inherits 650 public Wi-Fi hot spots at Starbucks locations.

The carrier plans to use the locations in a re-branded T-Mobile Wireless Broadband service enabling its GPRS customers to connect at 11 Mbps while sipping coffee. Customers out of range would switch to GSM/GPRS.

VoiceStream's new integrated mobile and Wi-Fi network will be introduced in three phases.

  • Phase 1: A simplified billing structure that includes both hot spot and GSM/GPRS use is set for the second half of 2002.

  • Phase 2: In early 2003, VoiceStream will offer a dual-mode GPRS and 802.11b PC card. The card will let subscribers wander from GPRS to Wi-Fi without needing to re-login or re-establish a connection when moving between networks.

  • Phase 3: VoiceStream expects to offer seamless mobility between cellular and Wi-Fi connections in a couple of years.
Stanton says Wi-Fi will provide customers stationary broadband access while mobile networks offer voice calls and narrowband data services. "It's coverage where they want it and speed where they need it," Stanton said.

"People don't care how they access wireless broadband, so long as it works," Isaac Ro, an Aberdeen Group analyst said. Ro believes by VoiceStream creating its own Wi-Fi network, the carrier is "hoping to 'box-out'" players such as Boingo Wireless which are attempting to establish a national foothold.

A Wi-Fi solution by RadioFrame Networks is being tested by Nextel to see if a combination cellular and 802.11b system could prevent cell phone calls being dropped due to weak indoor coverage. RadioFrame gets around the problem by connecting Nextel's outdoor cellular network to a WLAN suited for indoor networking. RadioFrame employs software-defined radio to forward signals sent to an outdoor cell site to an indoor minicell.

"Service providers have a very tough time providing enough capacity in high-density situations, such as conference centers and hotels," says Allen Nogee, an analyst with market research firm In-Stat/MDR.

Nextel, Sprint PCS and VoiceStream are not alone in their interest in supporting Wi-Fi users. Verizon Wireless sees tremendous synergies between existing wireless service and more localized networks in hot spots using unlicensed spectrum," according to spokesman Jeffrey Nelson.

As British Telecommunications readies a June launch of Wi-Fi networks in that country, NTT DoCoMo is running tests in Tokyo to gauge how volunteers like accessing Web sites and streaming video through WLANs.

Wireless carriers see Wi-Fi as an attractive and inexpensive way to quickly bring broadband service to subscribers waiting for 3G to expand beyond the initial pockets of coverage. As carriers move into the Wi-Fi market, we're likely to see changes in the way hot spots look and feel.

"WLAN hot spots would be owned by the service providers for use by their customers, and wouldn't be public," says Nogee.

A stumbling block preventing including Wi-Fi in cell phones has always been the battery life. Because a cell phone with integrated 802.11 would be constantly seeking wireless networks connections, handheld devices are quickly drained. Chip maker IceFyre Semiconductor has created an 802.11 chipset the company says uses 75 percent less power than others available.

Comment and Contribute
(Maximum characters: 1200). You have
characters left.