Cell phones, PDAs catch Wi-Fi fever

Already a hit in millions of homes and businesses, the wireless technology known as Wi-Fi is being used to extend the capabilities of cell phones and personal digital assistants.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
4 min read
Already a hit in millions of homes and businesses, the wireless technology known as Wi-Fi is being used to extend the capabilities of cell phones and personal digital assistants.

Phone equipment makers such as LG (formerly LG Electronics) and Nokia, as well as companies that make PDAs based on Microsoft's Pocket PC operating system, are planning to include wireless LAN (local area network) access--also known as 802.11 access or WiFi--into myriad devices within the next few years.

LG expects its products to have Wi-Fi capabilities by 2004 or 2005, according to Curtis Wick, director of product testing and technical support at LG. The other companies said they did not yet have a time frame set.

"802.11 is making its way into (these devices), and it will be embedded in high-end phones," Intersil President Greg Williams said. Intersil makes chips that power many of the world's 30 million Wi-Fi networks.

But the potential new devices already face a major hurdle: battery life. Batteries can keep a cell phone or PDA powered for only a limited number of hours. Adding an 802.11 component will deplete a battery even more quickly because it's always working to find a wireless network to log on to.

Still, manufacturers are proceeding with plans to add Wi-Fi capability to a range of mobile devices.

Cell phones with Wi-Fi would allow callers to maintain a connection even if they hit a dead zone--inside a building, for instance, where many phones lose coverage. Because wireless coverage is becoming increasingly common, some cell phone providers are looking to use wireless LANs to fill in gaps in high-speed wireless networks they're now building.

Makers of PDAs using Microsoft's Pocket PC operating system are "more aggressive" in their efforts to embed the 802.11 circuitry into their future devices, according to Cisco Systems' Charles Giancarlo, senior vice president of technology development. Cisco is a leading maker of Wi-Fi equipment.

Unlike cell phones, PDAs are a more natural fit for Wi-Fi because they have more processing power and can already do complex tasks such as running Microsoft's Word or Excel applications. An embedded Wi-Fi connection would enhance these existing software programs, plus any future ones, said Larry Birenbaum, vice president at Cisco.

"Devices with a (Pocket PC) or Palm operating system have a huge repertoire of potential applications, which are enriched by an order of magnitude when they can be connected to an Internet or intranet," Birenbaum said.

Calling on Wi-Fi
Wireless LANs, which run several kinds of 802.11 technologies, have spread into nearly 30 million homes and offices, and analysts say that figure might double in the next few years. The equipment can cost as little as $400 and allow Internet access for up to 300 feet from the wireless access point.

While 802.11 is a generic term used to refer to wireless local area networks, there are several related standards. The most popular and widely used at the moment is 802.11b, or Wi-Fi, which operates in the 2.4GHz spectrum along with cordless phones, microwave ovens, and another wireless technology known as Bluetooth. In addition, 802.11a, known as Wi-Fi5 because it operates in the 5GHz spectrum, and 802.11g have been developed to be more secure or to travel on more channels.

There are already ways to use wireless LANs to make a phone call. But the limitations are severe, particularly at the 300-foot range. Additionally, customers need specially made phones from companies like Spectralink or Symbol, which are connected to computers. The phones convert voice into packages of data, which are sent over the Internet to another phone-equipped computer. Some 802.11 networks are now being used to send the data packages to handheld devices.

Also, some warehouses and hotels are using 802.11 phone equipment to create their own private wireless networks, allowing employees to call each other from within the building, for example.

Cahners In-Stat Group believes there are about 80,000 of these hybrid handsets in use now, four times more than in 2001.

Meanwhile, cellular hardware and service companies are showing increasing interest in Wi-Fi.

In March, Nokia introduced a PC card for laptops that lets people tap into either a Wi-Fi network or high-speed wireless Internet network from AT&T Wireless, VoiceStream Wireless or Cingular Wireless. The credit card-sized device lets people with laptops roam from an 802.11b network to a cellular network without having to shut down their computers, insert a new modem, and adjust the settings. It also helps save on the costs of buying two different wireless modems. Since then, other companies have produced similar PC cards.

At the same time, the wireless carriers are adding Wi-Fi to their regular offerings.

One of the first was VoiceStream, which will change its name to T-Mobile this summer. Last year, it purchased a Wi-Fi company that had already set up wireless networks in hundreds of Starbucks shops.

VoiceStream is now looking to create a way for customers to automatically switch from their own GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) network to the Wi-Fi network without having to log on or reconfigure their computers, a VoiceStream representative said. The company expects to make that possible within 18 months.

Other carriers, such as Nextel Communications, are staying on the sidelines for now, a Nextel executive said. A representative for Sprint, which invested $15 million in Boingo, a wireless Internet service provider that uses 802.11, said there are no plans to offer these new hybrid devices.

IceFyre's hot idea
But the battery issue is significant--an 802.11 connection takes about 10 percent off the normal laptop battery life, according to Birenbaum. The effect on smaller devices with their smaller batteries would be much more dramatic, he said.

"It would be a big power drain for PDAs and cell phones," said Birenbaum, who is in charge of Cisco's wireless business.

Year-old semiconductor maker IceFyre Semiconductor thinks it has the answer. It claims to have created an 802.11 chipset that uses 75 percent less power than its competitors, said Mark Roberts, IceFyre's chief executive.