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Intel works to smooth out Wi-Fi roaming

The chipmaker and a Singaporean government agency launch a project to promote seamless wireless connectivity throughout Asia and, later, the United States.

SINGAPORE--Intel and the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore have teamed on an ambitious plan to cut through the tangle of network standards, so that users can stay connected in wireless and wired networks wherever they are.

As previously reported, networking groups and companies have been working to improve roaming between Wi-Fi hot spots. Hot spots are areas where wireless Web access is available to the public. Wi-Fi refers to wireless networking technology based on the 802.11b, the 802.11a and--by midyear--the 802.11g standards.

Improving the ability to roam between networks is expected to further the education and convenience of the market for Wi-Fi and hot spots.

"An IDD or Web user does not worry about how his call or URL request is routed, but just wants to reach the other party or resource on the Internet," said Tan Ching Yee, chief executive officer of Singapore?s Infocomm Development Authority (IDA).

"Likewise, mobile users want the same functionality," she said.

Currently, mobile device users are faced with an alphabet soup of wireless platforms from a host of service providers, the two parties said in a joint statement. As a result, people have to contend with a thicket of bills and passwords and the hassle of changing configurations as they move from one place to another.

Against this background, U.S. chipmaking giant Intel and IDA aim to develop an interoperable, standards-based architecture that can be adopted by equipment makers and wireless service providers everywhere to achieve automatic network switching and roaming.

The holy grail of cross-network interoperability has been sought by the likes of Microsoft and IBM, with limited success. Besides the technology hurdle posed by different network standards, there are business issues such as revenue sharing, and the question of operators' having to make risky investments in new hardware and software, say industry observers.

The new IDA-Intel Wireless Hotspots and Networking Initiative will kick off with an Intel-led study to explore how to get universal authentication, authorization and accounting across Wireless Local Area Networks (WLANs), Wide Area Networks (WANs) and cabled networks.

After that, IDA will conduct lab tests with related companies in Asia to validate the recommendations, which will then be pitched to industry associations such as the GSM Association and the Wi-Fi Alliance in the United States for broader adoption.

To develop the necessary expertise for the initiative, IDA will also send 10 Singaporean developers and engineers to train at Intel?s laboratories in Oregon.

The two parties said they will jointly invest $2.25 million into the program, and are set to announce details of industry partnerships in the next two months.

?This is a challenge worth solving, as WLAN will need to be ubiquitous for it to take off among businesses,? said Robin Simpson, Gartner Australasia?s research director for mobile and wireless.

"At this point, WLAN is very much a destination solution as users have to go to a specific place to gain access."

"In addition, the ability to achieve transparent handover between WLAN and cellular networks is very desirable, frees end users from the technicalities of manual configuration," he said.

Intel is adding built-in Wi-Fi capability to its upcoming family of mobile chips, Centrino, to better differentiate its processors from competing products. Centrino is scheduled to appear March 12.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based chipmaker has been very aggressive in promoting Centrino and in helping to build--through partnerships with airports, hotel chains and start-ups--other Wi-Fi- and hot spot-related services and products to support Centrino.

CNET Asia's Winston Chai reported from Singapore.'s Richard Shim contributed to this report.