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Standard roams the Wi-Fi, cellular range

A proposed Wi-Fi security standard for office systems is finding another use in technology that promises to let people roam easily between cell phone and Wi-Fi networks.

A proposed Wi-Fi security standard for office systems is finding another use in technology that promises to let people roam easily between cell phone and Wi-Fi networks.

Gemplus announced Thursday that it is working with Transat Technologies on including Extensible Authentication Protocol (EAP) technology in its smart cards, making it one of the first companies to develop the standard for devices that will roam between Wi-Fi and cell phone networks. Smart cards, found behind the batteries of cell phones, store a subscriber's account and billing information.

"For now, EAP is a very small part of the market," Transat CEO John Baker said. "But we're already seeing a lot of businesses show interest in EAP. So this is the future way to go."

Luxembourg-based Gemplus, which sold 100 million thumbnail-size smart cards to cell phone makers last year, already packs its smart cards with Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), a security standard expected to become part of Wi-Fi networks--wireless networks with a radius of around 300 feet--in coffee shops and other commercial areas. EAP is provides much stronger security protection than WPA, via better encryption and one-time passwords, for example.

EAP technology will likely be used mostly in offices or other professional environments that rely more heavily on secured networks, Philippe Martineau, a Gemplus vice president, said.

Transat's Baker said he expects other companies to follow Gemplus in adding EAP into smart cards capable of roaming between Wi-Fi and cellular networks. The Gemplus cards are being tested by AT&T Wireless and are due to ship in June.

The goal of both companies is to make it easier for someone to and get just one bill for the usages--something most U.S. carriers say they will be offering soon. In the future, for example, someone could use a combination phone and Palm Pilot to call the office about a forgotten business presentation, ask for it to be sent, then walk into a coffee shop with a Wi-Fi network to download it.

But to make that happen, several forces must be in line. Gemplus and Transat are working on technological developments, such as packing phones, laptops and personal digital assistants with both Wi-Fi and cellular radios, so the devices can use both networks. Most major manufacturers are already making so-called dual-mode PDAs, and Ethernet cards for laptops.

But nontechnical areas also need addressing. Specifically, various hot spot and cellular carriers will have to agree to let rivals' customers onto their networks. These so-called roaming agreements are often thought to be harder to develop than the necessary hardware. Recently, T-Mobile USA, which sells Wi-Fi access inside thousands of Starbucks locations, was recently criticized for not crafting enough roaming agreements with other Wi-Fi networks.

"It took the cellular world 10 years to reach these agreements, it might take another 10 to do it again," Jupiter Research analyst Joe Laszlo said.