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Qualcomm CEO touts cellular over Wi-Fi

Breaking ranks with other cell phone industry leaders, Irwin Jacobs says cell phone providers don't need to spice up their mix of offerings with access to Wi-Fi networks.

NEW ORLEANS--Breaking ranks with other cell phone industry leaders, Qualcomm CEO Irwin Jacobs said Tuesday that cell phone providers don't need to spice up their mix of offerings with access to Wi-Fi networks.

Speaking at the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association conference here, Jacobs said providers should instead stick with using cellular technology, which is already matching the download speeds of a Wi-Fi network, is cheaper to operate, and covers more ground than Wi-Fi's 300-foot range.

"As these high-speed cellular networks begin to spread across the country, they will become the preferred service," Jacobs told thousands of wireless executives gathered for the CTIA Wireless 2003 show.

Jacobs was weighing in on what has become a big debate among the nation's top carriers. They've all built high-speed wireless networks using cellular technologies with names like CDMA 2000 1xrtt or General Packet Radio Service--doubling the capacity of their networks for voice calls and creating a wireless Web network capable of matching landline Web speeds. And now most are adding Wi-Fi to the mix, eyeing the market for commercial "hot spots," places such as hotel lobbies or coffee shops where wireless Web access is made available to the public via Wi-Fi for a fee.

Most carriers view cell phone and Wi-Fi networks as complementary. Cell phone networks can cover a wide swath but don't download data nearly as fast as Wi-Fi networks. Wi-Fi can pick up the slack in cities or other areas for "heavy lifting," like downloading huge files.

"Wi-Fi has become the fair-haired child," CTIA President Tom Wheeler said Tuesday.

"We've always asserted that Wi-Fi is an opportunity," said John Stanton, president of T-Mobile, which has the largest Wi-Fi network in the United States and possibly the world. "We really have embraced it."

Boingo Wireless founder Sky Dayton, speaking earlier in the day, said Wi-Fi may already have too much momentum to ignore. Boingo Wireless has a network of more than 1,000 hot spots, to which it sells access in the same manner that EarthLink sells subscriptions to its wired Web service. Dayton is also the founder of EarthLink.

"Wi-Fi has clearly emerged with escape velocity," Dayton said.

But Jacobs disagrees, pointing out that Wi-Fi has a limited range, while the high-speed cellular networks already covering about 91 percent of Japan and beginning to be built in the United States are "everywhere," he said.

Cellular networks will also be cheaper for carriers to operate, Jacobs said. The faster data travels, the more carriers can sell in the form of ring tones, wireless Web access or downloadable games, he said.

Plus, the 3,500 or so hot spots are still struggling to make a business case, with some hot spot providers, such as Joltage, already folding up shop, Jacobs said. Others, like T-Mobile, have recently lowered the price for monthly access to their hot spot networks.

"There have been skeptics, but (cellular) is the way to go," Jacobs said.