Cellular networks nudge nearer to marriage with Wi-Fi

A driving vacation is a great escape during the summer months. In the past, my going on this kind of vacation meant being out of touch, unless I called in from whichever hotel I was staying at for the night. With the expansion of wireless cellular services to more areas, keeping in touch has become easier, but by no means a sure thing. Now, keeping in touch is changing. Not because cellular coverage is expanding, but because Internet access is becoming more common.

During a recent driving vacation I noticed that Internet access along our route had become the rule rather than the exception. Not just in the major centres, but also in smaller towns and rural areas. In some cases it was easier to find public Internet access than it was to get a reliable connection for my cell phone.

This led me to some interesting observations regarding the future of communications. First, coverage in areas that are remote and not well served by cellular communications may be better served by broadband Internet connections and wireless data networks like Wi-Fi or WiMAX (once it’s more widely available).

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Building this kind of infrastructure could be done by municipalities or other organizations and paid for either through the local municipalities’ business improvement associations, or via private organizations providing access on a fee-for-service basis.

This scenario is starting to play out in several places already, and in some cases is being challenged by incumbent telecom carriers who see this offering as a threat to their service. Widely deployed wireless Internet access would be a step towards providing a new “converged” infrastructure.

In this case convergence is not just the convergence of voice over IP on the data network — that’s a given for this setup. Convergence here would be a new converged device designed to act as both a cell phone and Wi-Fi (or eventually WiMAX) data tool that could use this new converged infrastructure. This device would seamlessly move between various cellular technologies (1X, 2.5G and 3G) and wireless data technologies like Wi-Fi or WiMAX. The device would always use the best access method possible at that moment for that location.

This is fundamentally different from a laptop with a cellular modem, which at best is marginally useful for VoIP. The new device would essentially be a dual-mode handset that several competing vendors are currently developing, based on new converged chipsets, with potential release dates around the end of the year.

The implication here is that the enterprise network will be drawn into this model of communication. Essentially, users of enterprise networks will be given one phone and one phone number. While out of the office and away from any data networks, the phone will work as a cellular phone. When in the office, the device will detect the local Wi-Fi network and automatically switch to VoIP. From a cost perspective, use of the phone on the enterprise LAN becomes free (after the infrastructure and operation costs) to the enterprise.

However, before all enterprise IT departments begin planning support of this new converged device, there are some factors to consider. First, there needs to be further development of chipsets that support this device. Today’s cellular phones have battery lifetimes measured in tens, if not hundreds, of hours. Wi-Fi chipsets are still relatively power hungry, meaning shorter battery life. It remains to be seen if the vendors of converged chipsets will solve this problem in first generation converged devices.

Second, the handoff of a cellular ID in a single carrier’s network is easy compared to ID handoffs for a VoIP handset. Service providers and equipment vendors need to solve the roaming problem on the public Wi-Fi network.

If the converged device only used VoIP while on the private enterprise network, roaming would not be as big a problem.

But having only local VoIP leads to the third issue. What is the actual advantage of having a converged device that does VoIP only in the enterprise that owns the device? The usefulness of such a converged device is limited. The user and therefore the enterprise get cost and feature benefits of VoIP locally, but not when there are other public Wi-Fi networks available. This would be a hindrance to large-scale adoption.

Internet communication would not replace cellular phones any time soon, but we should soon see new devices and networks that combine to provide more utility to users and better access to communications in more areas. As with all new developments, the first generation of these devices may not meet expectations, but assuming the problems get worked out, broadband wireless data networks and cellular networks will become accessible through the same small device.

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–Kanellakis has worked at Enterasys Networks and its predecessor Cabletron Systems for almost 15 years. These days Kelly is enjoying spending time with his family.

Related links:

A few pointers on convergence

Canadian researchers uncover new ‘wireless’ possibilities

Get prepared for convergence

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