Wireless LAN: Carriers Draw the Line on Mobile/Wi-Fi Integration

Wireless LAN: Carriers Draw the Line on Mobile/Wi-Fi Integration – CTIA Wireless 2003

Byline: DAN O’SHEA

Some of the biggest news to come out of the CTIA Wireless 2003 show had to with the rapidly advancing convergence between mobile data networks and Wi-Fi hot spots. Virtually every mobile carrier at the event had something to say on the subject, and the essence of their collective statements boils down to this: Mobile carriers are, for the most part, anxious to include popular Wi-Fi access among their service offerings, but they draw the line at further integration of the technology into their existing mobile networks.

Administrative roaming – allowing users access to integrated, point-and-click service menus, common authentication practices and a single bill for both mobile data and Wi-Fi charges – seems to be moving ahead.

T-Mobile USA Chairman John Stanton and Boingo Wireless founder and CEO Sky Dayton made the most significant carrier commitment thus far to making administrative roaming a commercial capability. They said their companies are co-developing new service provision software which, among other features, eventually will allow access to Boingo-aggregated Wi-Fi hot spots and T-Mobile 2.5G GPRS service through a single interface.

In a related move, Boingo said it would use PCTel’s Segue client software to set up support for roaming between Boingo hot spots and GPRS, as well as other 2.5G mobile data technologies such as CDMA 1XRTT and iDEN.

Still, despite these strides, carriers did not appear to be sold on any further network-level integration between mobile and Wi-Fi technologies. Though officials at several base station vendors said they have tested Wi-Fi radio technology integrated into their base stations, these efforts may remain low-key science projects for now.

“We can do [mobile base station/802.11] integration,” said Mark Whitton, chief technology officer for wireless at Nortel Networks. “Some carriers have asked us to test it, but we’re not seeing a lot of demand for it. Because the coverage areas are so different for the technologies, it’s not going to be for everyone.”

Cingular Wireless is a standout among major carriers because it hasn’t made a public commitment to offer Wi-Fi services in any way – T-Mobile owns hot spots, Verizon Wireless and AT&T Wireless resell Wayport service, and Sprint PCS has invested in Boingo and is said to be working on mobile/Wi-Fi roaming. However, Kris Rinne, vice president of technology at Cingular, said at the show that the carrier is cultivating a Wi-Fi plan. “We’re looking at different hot spot aggregators, and we’re working on a PC card that will support GSM/GPRS/802.11 access.”

Rinne added, however, that a network integration involving combined mobile/802.11 base stations is less likely.

“We’re focusing on the client management piece and not the base station piece,” she said. “I wouldn’t rule out an integrated base station, but I’m having trouble figuring out what the engineering would look like. Would it be like a pico cell? It’s not yet clear what the advantages of a combined footprint would be.”

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