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Wireless firm adds hybrid modem to mix

GTran Wireless unveils one of a growing number of the so-called hybrid modems--cards that are able to switch between wireless networks and Internet services.

A U.S. company on Monday unveiled its version of a modem that can automatically switch between an 802.11 wireless network and wireless Internet services from commercial carriers.

The new card from GTran Wireless is among the growing number of so-called hybrid modems that have debuted this year. The technology is being marketed chiefly to businesses because of the need for employees to stay in touch with their offices while on the go.

Usually, laptops or PDAs (personal digital assistants) need a separate, credit card-size modem for each wireless network encountered. However, GTran's card, for example, would be able to give a person with a mobile device access to both an 802.11 wireless network and wireless Internet services from companies like Verizon Wireless or Sprint.

Intersil, an Irvine, Calif.-based company that makes silicon technology for WLANs (Wireless Local Area Networks), is providing GTran's modem with the 802.11 chips. The card is set to be available by the end of the year.

Intersil Senior Manager John Allen said device makers had been asking for hybrid wireless modems for years. The problem was that the technology needed to catch up. Shrinking the devices down in size was the biggest challenge, he said.

"When we first came out with (an) 802.11 card, it took up all of the real estate for both sides of a PC card," he said. "After four generations, we've gotten smaller and smaller."

So far, most of the hybrid modems have married 802.11 and the high-speed wireless Internet services that most U.S. carriers have launched, or will launch, in the next year. The GTran card works on both Wi-Fi and a wireless Internet network that uses a standard known as CDMA2000 1xrtt.

U.S. wireless carriers Verizon and Sprint have built networks using CDMA2000 1xrtt, which can download information at the speed of a dial-up Internet connection. GTran spokeswoman Connie Cheng said the Westlake Village, Calif., company is talking to the two carriers about selling the modem, but no deals have been struck.

Handset maker Nokia introduced a hybrid card earlier this year that would let a person use both a wireless "hot spot" and a wireless Internet network that uses a standard called GPRS (General Packet Radio Service). Wireless carriers AT&T Wireless and VoiceStream Wireless have GPRS networks that can download Web pages wirelessly at speeds of about 20kbps to 40kbps.

That card is due in the United States later this year, Nokia spokesman Keith Nowak said.

"We're seeing the marriage of cellular data technology and 802.11 is a natural fit, and other people are seeing that as well," he said.

Intersil announced Monday that it has developed a hybrid modem card that can access 802.11 networks and let a device interact with another device using wireless standard Bluetooth.

Bluetooth is a high-powered wireless connection with a very short range. Advocates say the radio-frequency communication standard will eliminate cable clutter and make it easier to synchronize handheld computers and PCs. It will also, they say, make it easier to connect microphones and headsets to computers, let a person use a next-generation cell phone as a modem, and should lead to the arrival of "personal area networks" of interconnected gadgets.

Microsoft plans to put its muscle behind the Bluetooth wireless networking technology later this year, selling keyboards and mice that use the technology to connect to PCs, Chairman Bill Gates has announced.