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Mobile

Triad works to wed Wi-Fi to cellular

Communications gear makers Avaya, Proxim and Motorola are codeveloping a mobile device that roams between cell phone networks and Wi-Fi wireless hot spots.

Avaya, Proxim and Motorola are codeveloping a mobile device that roams between cell phone networks and public or private Wi-Fi wireless hot spots, company executives said Tuesday.

The three communications manufacturers believe the phones and supporting gear will be among the first from major companies to link two of the world's most popular kinds of wireless network, said Bo Pyskir, senior director of business development at Motorola.

"Our vision is to connect the various spaces, be they public hot spots, private hot spots or office networks," Pyskir said Tuesday.

Cell phone and Wi-Fi wireless networks have been on course to either merge or collide for about two years, since handset maker Nokia unveiled plans for "dual-mode" phone like the one Motorola is now developing.

Wi-Fi wireless networks have a range of about 300 feet in radius and allow for the transfer of files at speeds of up to 11mbps. Cellular phone networks cover huge distances at a time, but crawl at less than 56kbps when shuttling data like e-mails or Web pages.

Nokia and Matsushita are among those in the industry that believe the two wireless networks are complementary.

But others say the two types of networks--as a result of being two different ways of providing wireless access--are eventually going to be foes. Some industry go as far as predicting that Wi-Fi will eventually be the wireless network of choice. The number of Wi-Fi hot spot providers selling access on a monthly, weekly or daily basis has increased significantly in the past year.

In addition, calls made using the equipment from Avaya, Proxim and Motorola will sometimes travel over the Web, and not via the networks of the local landline phone companies--potentially creating opposition from those traditional providers.

Meanwhile, nearly every U.S. cellular carrier has either expressed an interest in selling Wi-Fi access. T-Mobile is the only one with a service available now, which gives its customers access to Wi-Fi networks inside about 2,000 Starbucks cafes for a fee.

Technical challenges on horizon
The gear announced Tuesday includes a phone from Motorola that uses both Wi-Fi and cell phone networks. The telephone network equipment and the software to manage it all comes from Avaya, while Proxim is building a new kind of Wi-Fi access point. Early trials of prototypes will begin sometime in the latter half of 2003, with a commercial release of the products due in about 12 to 18 months. Prices of the equipment haven't been set yet.

The hybrid gear will be first targeted at businesses in North America, Asia and Europe, where many companies are merging their phone systems with their computer networks to save costs. Executives for the new wireless partners could not predict when the gear would be offered to wireless carriers or to Wi-Fi hot spot providers.

The new joint project faces some tricky technological problems. For example, Motorola will have to battle to create a phone that can use a Wi-Fi network without having its battery drain within a few minutes, Pyskir said.

In addition, Proxim will have to supply an access point--the radio that creates the wireless field and manages traffic--that's unlike any of the tens of millions of access points now in homes and offices worldwide, said Angela Champness, a senior vice president at Proxim. These access points are so complex that some of the heavy lifting has to be done by a computer network, she said.

The project will also have to contend with business conditions out of the three companies' control, like hot spot operators and cell phone carriers cooperating with each other and splitting revenue.

But executives say they remain undaunted. "There's no reason why we can't extend this to hot spots," Champness said.