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Sunday, July 30, 2021

The concept’s been kicked around for years, but it looks like wireless phones that can piggyback onto wi-fi Web hotspots for connections are closer to reality, as Skype and ISPs collaborate with handset manufacturers to make it happen.

“It’s a phone that looks, feels and acts like a cell phone, but it actually operates over the Wi-Fi network,” said Steve Howe, vice president of voice for EarthLink, which is building networks in Philadelphia and Anaheim, Calif.

Later this year it plans to introduce Wi-Fi phone service that Mr. Howe said could cost a fifth as much as traditional cell service.

The technology is in its early stages, and it faces some hurdles to widespread use. But it is being promoted by big technology companies like Cisco Systems and giving rise to new competition in the mobile phone business.

A handful of companies are already using Wi-Fi phones to cut costs within offices or on corporate campuses, and the phones will soon be reaching the consumer market.

This looks to be a threat to the telcos, which rely on people burning through their plan minutes. If your phone can regularly bypass the wireless provider’s celltower, especially in a wi-fi dense area, then what’s to stop the average consumer from going with a wireless plan with the minimum number of minutes? (I’m assuming you wouldn’t be able to forego a wireless plan altogether — for instance, you’d still need the phone activated, with an assigned phone number, etc.)

But if it is a threat, the telephone companies’ first reaction is to (uncharacteristically) co-opt it:

The major cellphone companies have taken notice of Wi-Fi phones, and some have chosen to deal with the potential threat by embracing it, building it into their business plans.

Cingular Wireless plans to introduce phones next year that will allow people to connect at home through their own wireless networks but switch to cell towers when out and about.

Later this year, T-Mobile plans to test a service that will allow its subscribers to switch seamlessly between connections to cellular towers and Wi-Fi hotspots, including those in homes and the more than 7,000 it controls in Starbucks outlets, airports and other locations, according to analysts with knowledge of the plans. The company hopes that moving mobile phone traffic off its network will allow it to offer cheaper service and steal customers from cell competitors and landline phone companies like AT&T.

“T-Mobile is interested in the replacement or displacement of landline minutes,” said Mark Bolger, director of marketing for T-Mobile. Wi-Fi calling “is one of the technologies that will help us deliver on that promise.”

So everyone’s onboard, it seems.

I can’t help but notice, though: In order to be a viable out-and-about option, these phones would rely upon unsecured hotspots; that’s the only way to maintain a fairly consistent connection while switching from one zone to another. In that case, isn’t this an example of wi-fi leeching, which is generally frowned upon? I can’t believe everyone involved would want to dip into that morass.

And that’s the viable solution. These phones would be high-and-dry when encountering encrypted connections. I imagine the phones could be configured to tap into a WEP-protected setup, but that doesn’t jibe with the operating principle here — the ability to use a mobile phone while in transit, when a celltower can’t/won’t do. I guess the owners of such phones can sync up with their household wi-fi access points, and the corporate-campus environment cited above seems like another ideal setting for a wide-area network solution. But in that case, I can’t believe the phone companies would play along, ceding network access time in physical areas where the majority of phone usage would occur.

So I’m not sure this concept is fully thought-out. It sounds to me like it’s dependent upon the indefinite continuation of hundreds of open wi-fi hotspots in tight physical zones, even as encryption becomes more of an out-of-the-box solution with wireless equipment. Take that away, and the wi-fi switching trick seems like a rarely-usable option.

by Costa Tsiokos, Sun 07/30/2006 06:56:25 PM
Category: Tech, Wi-Fi | Permalink |

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  1. WI-FI PHONES, REALIZED…

    They were teased nearly a year ago, and now they’re here: T-Mobile’s HotSpot @Home wireless plan offers customers new Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) phones that can alternate between T-Mobile’s cellular network or a home wi-fi Interne…

    Trackback by Population Statistic — 06/30/2007 @ 12:42:01 PM

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