The companies said the system will help owners of cell phones and other wireless devices move in and out of buildings without dropping calls or losing data services. Nextel said the system also will let consumers use wireless local area networks (WLANs) over the same technological infrastructure. WLANs let anyone with a laptop and a modem get Wi-Fi Internet access from up to 300 feet away.
"This addresses a problem for any customer with signal issues and allows them to deploy wireless LAN technology at the same time," said Jonathan Pelson, a senior director at wireless phone company Nextel. "We think that's a great bonus for users."
The combined cellular-Wi-Fi system uses indoor wireless specialist RadioFrame's "super access bays," which are mounted at various locations within a building. Each unit is about the size of an exit sign and can contain up to seven wireless transceivers. The system relies on Nextel's wireless network for cellular coverage.
IBM already has implemented the system, and a number of other companies are in the process of installing the product, Pelson said.
"We think there's a big opportunity for customers to take advantage of the converged network," said Rick Applegate, vice president of sales and marketing at RadioFrame. "This is something that should be attractive to users in the enterprise space, where Nextel has a strong presence."
Industry experts viewed the product release as a positive step for Nextel, saying it will help the company address the needs of its corporate customers.
"People can't afford to have dropped calls whenever they need to go somewhere," said Charles Golvin, a senior analyst at Forrester Research. "Nextel, perhaps more than any other wireless vendor, needs to continue to develop its wireless infrastructure if it's going to hold onto enterprise customers."
Golvin said that extending cellular coverage and offering WLAN capabilities at the same time is "a nice way to kill two birds with one stone."
Nextel executives said the cost of the system will vary according to customers' individual design, implementation and maintenance requirements.
The system can be upgraded simply by installing additional transceivers, according to RadioFrame executives. Elliott Hoole, senior director of technology development at RadioFrame, said the company is working on versions of the product that will work with wireless protocols other than Nextel's network, including CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access), GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) and eventually universal mobile telecommunications service.