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Cell phone, laptop networks connect

Nokia is set to unveil a modem for notebooks that can access both cell phone networks and the networks that laptops use to surf the Net wirelessly.

Laptop users may soon be able to roam like callers on cell phones.

Nokia on Monday will unveil a modem for laptops that can access both 802.11b networks, which laptops use to surf the Net wirelessly, and cell phone networks.

The credit card-size device would let laptop users roam from an 802.11b network to a cellular network without having to shut down their computers, insert a new modem, and then adjust the settings. It also helps save on costs of buying two different wireless modems.

The PC card is the first of its kind to couple the two different types of wireless networks--one blazing fast but only available 100 yards at a time, another with a much weaker signal over a wider area. The card's availability in the United States later this year is expected to trigger a series of new service announcements from telecom carriers.

The merger of these two wireless networks is still in its infancy, however, and faces big technological hurdles. But most major carriers--including Verizon Wireless, Cingular Wireless, AT&T Wireless and Sprint PCS--have all indicated they intend to add 802.11b into their mix of offerings, analysts say. VoiceStream Wireless already owns MobileStar, which sells wireless Internet access in Starbucks cafes.

"The plan is to have the carriers in control of 802.11b," said Alan Nogee, an analyst with Cahners In-Stat Group. "They'll be saying, 'Yes, we have these faster networks,' but they recognize that there are many places like convention centers where people are going to want even faster speeds."

802.11b transmits its signals in an unregulated and crowded spectrum shared by transmissions from cordless phones and the growing number of Bluetooth products. Despite its shortcomings--which include porous security against hackers and a signal that travels only 100 yards at a time--it has found a home in airport executive lounges, hotel lobbies, and a growing numbers of homes and businesses.

Cellular carriers have their own wireless networks, using a signal that travels over a portion of spectrum licensed from the Federal Communications Commission. The signal travels for 30 or 40 miles at a time, but is significantly slower than 802.11b. Nearly all major carriers are building third-generation, or so-called "3G," networks to expand the number of calls that can be processed at any one time.

"3G certainly isn't dead, but 802.11b is a fill-in," said Martin Dunsby of Deloitte Consulting's global wireless initiative.

Dunsby expects telecommunications carriers will enter into agreements with any of the hundreds of smaller 802.11b service providers, such as Boingo, or will buy the remains of the more than a dozen companies trying to sell wireless services that either went bankrupt or shut down in 2001.

Gartner analyst Martin Reynolds says there is a bright future for devices that combine 802.11b and telephony networks.

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Can we get along?
The coupling of these two wireless services faces some major hurdles such as trying to jam onto one silicon chip the software necessary to send and receive phone calls and 802.11b-driven Internet access. That would make the chip significantly cheaper to build, and it would need less energy to operate. Nokia would not reveal the details of its PC card design. But chipmakers like LinCom Wireless assume Nokia is using two separate chips in its PC card.

"It's not a trivial task to do this," said Craig Lewis, LinCom Wireless sales and marketing director.

He said LinCom is developing a single chip that can access both a cellular network and 802.11b network. The one major hurdle so far is figuring out how to let a laptop switch automatically between the two wireless networks, he said.

He added that interference between the two different signals, while certainly not a minor issue, isn't that much of a problem. A cellular network and 802.11b use different portions of radio frequency to broadcast. The signals won't interfere with each other as much as people suspect, Lewis said.

Carriers dialing in
VoiceStream Wireless is so far the only carrier to add 802.11b into its repertoire. It bought financially ailing MobileStar, which outfits Starbucks cafes and dozens of hotels with wireless networks. The company continues to offer service, according to VoiceStream Wireless spokeswoman Brigette Helsten.

Other carriers declined comment on their future plans, citing policies of not revealing future business moves.

The Nokia device announced Monday only works on telephone networks that use a standard known as general packet radio service (GPRS), making Cingular Wireless, AT&T Wireless and VoiceStream Wireless likely candidates to sell them in the United States. All three carriers have GPRS networks up and running.

But the cards won't work for Verizon Wireless customers. The nation's largest carrier uses a competing standard on its new, higher-speed telephone network known as code division multiple access, or CDMA.

Qualcomm, which owns most of the patents to CDMA, has expressed an interest in developing a PC card that will work on both 802.11b and CDMA networks, Nogee said. A Qualcomm representative was unavailable for comment.