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Wi-Fi push picks up force

Makers of cell phone network equipment are joining the race to sell wireless carriers ways to add Wi-Fi service onto their networks.

Makers of cell phone network equipment are joining the race to sell wireless carriers such as Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS ways to add Wi-Fi service onto their networks.

Lucent Technologies, which sells wireless carriers the "big boxes" needed to power a cellular network, on Wednesday unveiled a passel of goods that carriers could use to build Wi-Fi networks for their customers to use.

Nortel Networks, another leading maker of cell phone network equipment, plans to "play in that space as well," and is eyeing the market now for business models to do so, said spokesman Jay Barta.

Wi-Fi--which creates a 300-foot zone where laptops or PDAs (personal digital assistants) can connect to each other or the Internet without wires--and cell phones have been on a collision course for at least a year. The two wireless networks are considered complementary; Wi-Fi has a short range but a powerful signal, while cellular networks have a long range but a weaker signal. Nearly every U.S. wireless carriers is considering adding Wi-Fi as a way to augment the wireless Web networks they are now building.

Until Wednesday, the companies that carriers use for their cellular network equipment have stayed on the sidelines, preferring like Nortel Networks, to offer Wi-Fi equipment just to businesses that want to add wireless networking equipment into their offices. Instead, companies such as 3Com and Texas Instruments have approached the carriers with equipment for Wi-Fi services.

The Lucent offering comes just a few days after the disclosure of "Project Rainbow," an Intel-led initiative to create a national Wi-Fi network that is said to involve major carriers such as Cingular Wireless and Verizon Communications.

"Project Rainbow validates what we are doing," said Lucent Technologies spokesman Ichiro Kawasaki.

So far, though, the only wireless carrier to add Wi-Fi services is VoiceStream, which sells access to wireless networks in hundreds of Starbucks. VoiceStream will be known later this year as T-Mobile. Of the remaining wireless carriers, Sprint PCS has come closest to offering such a service, having made an investment in Wi-Fi access seller Boingo Wireless. Other carriers, such as Nextel Communications, are just beginning to explore adding Wi-Fi, executives said.

Alan Nogee, an analyst with researcher Cahners In-Stat, said he expects the major wireless carriers to begin offering similar services, 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."

Lucent has signed up a number of different companies to help out. Hewlett-Packard will integrate the equipment into the cellular carrier's networks. Modem maker Sierra Wireless will provide modems needed to access cell phone networks using versions of CDMA (code division multiple access). Wi-Fi equipment maker Agere Systems will be provide Wi-Fi access points and the modems that laptops or PDAs need to access them.

Nortel Networks has a partnership with device maker Symbol Technologies, among other companies, to create a similar product to sell to carriers, Nortel's Barta said. Nearly every U.S. carrier uses Nortel's cellular telephone network equipment.

"We've got (Wi-Fi equipment); we're tinkering around with the technology in the labs," he said.