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Qualcomm to add Wi-Fi to phone chips

The cell phone heavyweight is planning to put the wireless capabilities into tens of millions of phone chips.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
2 min read
Cell phone heavyweight Qualcomm plans to put Wi-Fi capabilities into tens of millions of phone chips, a Qualcomm spokesman said Monday.

Qualcomm, which licenses cell phone designs to manufacturers and makes chipsets, is the latest company to begin merging cell phones with the Wi-Fi wireless networks, which create a powerful wireless zone of about 300 feet. But it is still undecided as to just when the company will finish development work and ship the first chips, the spokesman said.

Qualcomm declined to comment further on its plans for the new chips. Analysts say Qualcomm intends to begin designing and selling cellular phone chips with Wi-Fi inside to keep pace with the rest of the wireless industry, which is already selling such hybrid devices.

The wireless industry considers Wi-Fi a way to augment cell phone networks. Because Wi-Fi networks can also ferry voice calls, these networks could be used in the future to improve cell phone reception in buildings, where cellular coverage is traditionally poor.

Wi-Fi could also be used as a way for carriers, for now, to meet the hype of so-called 3G, or third-generation, wireless Web networks, an area they've begun building and selling services on. The carriers are promising a nationwide wireless network capable of speeds that make it easy to download music on a cell phone, among other features.

Downloading anything of any size to a cell phone or PDA (personal digital assistant) is a real task. That's where Wi-Fi comes in. It could be used to do the "heavy lifting," Cahners In-Stat analyst Allen Nogee said. For instance, a cell phone able to access a Wi-Fi network could use Wi-Fi to download a huge document to a personal computer, which has more computing power than a cell phone, for example.

"There is some very real potential to offloading some of the voice calls onto Wi-Fi," said Keith Waryas, a wireless analyst with IDC.

Qualcomm is considered one of the bigger pieces of the Wi-Fi and cellular hybrid puzzle. The San Diego-based company says it controls all the necessary patents for CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access), a technology at the heart of about 20 percent of the world's wireless phones and phone networks.

The makers of cell phones using GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications), an open standard in about 70 percent of the world's phones, have already created some hybrid products. BT, a carrier in the U.K., has begun offering a hybrid phone and wireless service. In the United States, AT&T Wireless is said to be part of "Project Rainbow," an Intel-led initiative to create a nationwide wireless Wi-Fi network.

Nokia, which makes about 40 percent of the world's phones, intends to add Wi-Fi into some future wireless devices. It already has begun selling a wireless modem for laptops and PDAs (personal digital assistants) that can access both a cellular phone and Wi-Fi network.

"All the GSM guys are going to do it," Waryas said.