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Merging lanes on the wireless freeway

Hewlett-Packard and Juniper Networks are joining the growing number of telecom equipment makers trying to combine wireless networking and cell phone services.

Hewlett-Packard and Juniper Networks on Monday joined the growing number of telecom equipment makers trying to combine wireless networking and cell phone services.

HP on Monday announced it is reselling software from Transat that lets wireless carriers give cell phone subscribers the ability to roam onto public Wi-Fi networks and get one bill--just like they would when roaming between different cell phone networks. Wi-Fi is a technology that allows laptops and other devices located within a 300-foot radius to communicate without wires.

Juniper Networks also on Monday unveiled new equipment meant to make it easier for wireless carriers to add Wi-Fi to their list of service offerings. Like HP's gear, Juniper's equipment is meant for wireless carriers to install on their networks.

The announcements highlight a recent push to find more ways for wireless carriers to combine their networks with "hot spots," public areas that offer wireless Web access. All major U.S. carriers have announced plans to offer such services, hoping to cash in on Wi-Fi's expected surge in popularity. Gartner Dataquest predicts 50 million people will be using hot spots by 2006.

Carriers have two ways to offer such services. One is to build a Wi-Fi network, which can be an expensive proposition. T-Mobile in the United States is now in the process of outfitting thousands of Starbucks stores with Wi-Fi equipment. Cometa Networks, backed by Intel, IBM and AT&T, plans to build nationwide networks as well.

Maurice Marks, chief technology officer of HP's service provider business, said the company is giving carriers another method: reselling access from existing hot spots. There are now about 14,000 hot spots worldwide, which are mostly independently owned and operated.

The Transat software allows a cell phone account to be billed from a hot spot. Marks said HP made Transat's software part of its OpenCall SS7, which is used by wireless carriers to authenticate cell phone subscribers every time they turn on a phone to make or take a call. Marks said there are dozens of carriers using OpenCall SS7, representing about 100 million cell phone subscribers.

"There will be 300,000 hot spots by 2006," Mark said, citing Gartner Dataquest figures. "No carrier will want to build their own network."

Transat software is already used by several European telephone companies, including Swiss carrier Monzune. A wireless carrier in China is also testing Transat's software, according to Marks.