Wi-Fi, cell networks begin to meld

The result is that more people using the 802.11b standard will be able to automatically roam onto cellular networks. Analysts, however, are less than enthused.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
3 min read
Wireless Internet service providers that use the 802.11b, or Wi-Fi, standard have started to let customers roam onto cellular networks.

Palo Alto, Calif.-based WiFi Metro on Tuesday began letting people automatically switch to carriers that offer Internet capabilities, such as Verizon Wireless or Cingular Wireless, once they leave the range of the company's equipment. For customers to make the switch, they must be subscribers of both.

The three-month trial is among the first to couple a cellular telephone's Internet network, which covers a huge area with a weak signal, with the high-speed, but short-range, of Wi-Fi networks sprouting up in coffee shops and airport lounges.

Carriers like VoiceStream Wireless, Sprint PCS and Nextel Communications plan to launch similar services in the future, but haven't given specific timetables. VoiceStream is the most aggressive, having purchased an ailing wireless Internet service provider last year.

WiFi Metro founder Arturo Pereyra said he is hoping that his company will be the small, nimble start-up "David" beating the industry's "Goliaths" to market, forcing them to speed their plans. He said the company is already in talks with a major wireless provider to link WiFi Metro's service with their networks, but refused to be more specific.

"Usually it's the nimble start-ups that do the innovation and the others, including players in the sector, that follow up," he said. "We've put the ball into play; they've (carriers) become much more aggressive."

But analysts aren't gung ho just yet.

Alan Nogee of Cahners In-Stat Group said he expects the major carriers to have a similar service, but not for at least two years. Most are still building higher-speed wireless Internet networks, he said, which they'll put much of their focus on for now.

"Certainly, carriers are watching this trial," Nogee said. "But do I expect them to deploy something in the next six months? No way."

Why Wi-Fi?
WLANs (wireless local area networks) let anyone with a laptop and a modem get wireless Internet access from up to 300 feet away. Although WLANs operate through the 802.11 standard, there is an alphabet soup of versions of 802.11 that have varying levels of security or speed.

For example, Wi-Fi networks operate on 802.11b, but 802.11a and 802.11g have been developed to be more secure or to travel on more channels.

The 802.11b version runs on three channels in the unregulated 2.4GHz spectrum, which is also used by cordless phones, microwave ovens and many Bluetooth products. Bluetooth is a wireless technology that uses radio waves to send data between devices. Because the information is transmitted through the air, a person can "capture" the information as it travels.

The 802.11a strain is an approved standard that broadcasts a more powerful signal, running on 12 channels in the 5GHz spectrum, and transfers data up to five times faster than 802.11b. There are a very limited number of 802.11a networks, even though the 802.11a chipsets have been sold for nearly a year. Though it is faster, it has not been backward compatible to 802.11b.

Another Wi-Fi standard, known as 802.11g, which is more secure than 802.11b and has the speed of 802.11a, is also in the works, but has yet to be approved by the appropriate standards bodies.

Calling all cars
WiFi Metro's trial is among the first in the nation to marry these two networks together for public use. Before Tuesday, the only place where these networks got together was on the dashboards of police cars in Oakland, Calif., and Baltimore.

Police departments in both cities have been using software from a company called Padcom. Most Baltimore police officers, for example, can park their patrol cars near a substation or near the department's headquarters and latch on to an 802.11 network inside. When they are not near a substation, officers latch on to a wireless Internet network provided by Verizon.

AT&T Wireless' wireless Internet network will be part of a trial by the Orange County (Calif.) Sheriff's Department. The trial, which will use the same technology, begins in a few weeks, Padcom executive Mark Ferguson said.