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AT&T, Verizon Wireless join Wi-Fi interoperability group

Wi-Fi is key to mobile operators' wireless broadband strategies and major carriers are uniting to ensure interoperability standards.

Wi-Fi is increasingly becoming a major part of wireless operators' strategy to deliver mobile broadband services as wireless data traffic explodes.

A sign of the growing importance of Wi-Fi to carriers is the fact that earlier this week AT&T and Verizon Wireless, the two largest mobile-phone companies in the U.S., joined the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), a group that since 2003 has promoted interoperability among carrier Wi-Fi networks.

The WBA has developed and implemented a standard for commercial Wi-Fi roaming around the world. The way it works is that WBA members share their customers' log-in credentials to allow for roaming. Consumers are able to use their existing username and password to log in and get access to a Wi-Fi hot spot owned by another carrier.

As mobile wireless data traffic grows unabated through the use of devices like the iPhone, carriers' networks around the world are starting to crumble under the pressure. Many operators, such as Verizon Wireless, are upgrading to next-generation 4G wireless networks. This will help alleviate some of the problems, but data usage is growing so rapidly, wireless operators around the globe are looking to Wi-Fi to help offload some of that traffic.

"It will be impossible for Verizon or any 4G wireless carrier to handle the demand for wireless broadband that is being predicted," said Dave Fraser, CEO of Devicescape, a Wi-Fi company that is working with carriers such as Deutsche Telekom, The Cloud, and Softbank as well as device manufacturers to help solve the issue of data strain on their 3G wireless networks.

"Wi-Fi offers a cost-effective solution that can augment these other networks. And Verizon seems to be recognizing that strategically it's important to embrace this low cost solution."

Verizon Wireless' membership in the alliance is somewhat surprising, given that the company has traditionally not been a big fan of using Wi-Fi technology to offload traffic. In fact, the company used to disable Wi-Fi functionality on smartphones it sold for its network. But more recently, the company has had a change of heart when it comes to Wi-Fi. In 2009, it announced that some of its Verizon Fios subscribers would get free access to its own Verizon Wi-Fi hot spots as well as to hot spots offered by Boingo as part of its broadband service.

By contrast, AT&T has been making a major push toward getting consumers to use its 20,000 Wi-Fi hotspots more. AT&T, the exclusive carrier for the iPhone in the U.S., has struggled to keep up with demand for wireless data services on its network.

"We joined the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), because Wi-Fi is a growing part of our existing business and broadband strategy," said Mark Siegel, a spokesman for AT&T. "WBA is focused on Wi-Fi roaming and, through our membership, we hope to accomplish: better interoperability and roaming; a seamless Wi-Fi experience for our customers, including internationally, and a common set of defined Wi-Fi roaming standards that are broadly adopted."

AT&T recently launched a new tiered data pricing plan that eliminates the unlimited data plan it used to sell with the iPhone and other smartphones. As part of the new plan, AT&T is encouraging customers to use Wi-Fi when possible. And it's been counting on Apple iPad customers to also use Wi-Fi in lieu of its 3G wireless network.

One of the biggest benefits of Wi-Fi is the fact that it's already in most devices. Laptops come with Wi-Fi pre-installed, and now most new smartphones also come with Wi-Fi built in. It's also cheap and easy to install. And it is fast.

Advances in Wi-Fi technology over the past couple of years have also made it more useful for mobile operators. The latest version of the technology--802.11n--can transmit up to a 100 meters in radius. The networks offer speeds that are at least nine times faster than the fastest cellular technologies.

But Wi-Fi still has issues. Even though many smartphones and other portable devices have Wi-Fi built-in, it's not always an easy and seamless experience for consumers to access Wi-Fi networks. This is the problem that the WBA is trying to resolve.

"There is an industry-wide effort to make Wi-Fi completely invisible to users," Fraser said.

He added there is currently a project underway that uses technology that automatically detects and selects the best Wi-Fi network and then authenticates users for that network. He also said that carriers around the world had similar problems with interoperability among cellular networks, but they were able to work together and develop standards for seamless roaming internationally among various carrier networks.

"The same thing can be done with Wi-Fi," he said.