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The Skinny on Wi-Fi-Enabled Smartphones

Some models of BlackBerry and iPhone and other smartphones are Wi-Fi capable and allow you to access the Internet when you are in the range of a Wi-Fi network. Will this spell the beginning of the end for cell providers?
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Over the past five years mobile computer users have benefitted -- nay, relied upon -- wireless high-speed connectivity in the home, office, and various “hotspots” around the globe be it your local coffee house or an airport lounge in Moscow.

Now a standard feature even among entry-level laptops, wireless Internet or Wi-Fi (802.11) frees the computer user to work where and when they want, no longer restrained by a cord and a wall to access the Internet at broadband speeds.

Get ready for the second major Wi-Fi wave, as the connectivity is beginning to appear in smartphones. This feature is already built into popular handsets including Apple’s iPhone, Nokia’s N95, and Research in Motion’s BlackBerry 8120, 8320, and 8820.

Better for business

Whether they’re used in a private space (such as a home or office) or commercial location (like a coffee shop or airport), Wi-Fi-capable smartphones are capable of downloading data at much higher speeds than what your cell phone provider is offering, be it global system for mobile communications (GSM) or code division multiple access (CDMA) connectivity.

Sure, this is handy from a consumer perspective, such as quick music downloads to your phone or smoother video streaming, but consider the work-related advantages to accessing data faster and more reliably.

“Wi-Fi is faster than most cellular data connections, even 3G, so bandwidth intensive things such as web browsing and downloads are a lot faster,” says Gary Chen, senior analyst for small and medium enterprise IT infrastructure and applications at the Yankee Group, a Boston-based technology research firm.

Not only is Wi-Fi faster but also cheaper, adds Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile computing at the Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner, a research and consulting group. “If the organization is on a fixed price per minute, avoiding cellular charges can save money with Wi-Fi.”

Chen agrees: “If you don't have an unlimited data plan and are charged by the kilobyte, then using Wi-Fi can help save on your data bill for sure.”

Voice service, too

Some GSM-based carriers -- such as O2 in the U.K., T-Mobile in the U.S. and Rogers Wireless in Canada -- are letting users of Wi-Fi phones use voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) technology when in a wireless network.

Often referred to as Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA), these supported handsets can seamlessly switch from a GSM call to Wi-Fi, or vice-versa, without dropping the call. Though this service usually costs a few dollars a month, they offer unlimited Wi-Fi access, therefore a UMA call doesn’t eat away at a customer’s monthly airtime minutes. Call quality is also better over Wi-Fi. It can be used in spots without good cell reception (such as a high-rise office tower or basement office). And Wi-Fi takes less of a toll on the phone’s battery compared to GSM.

Not necessarily trouble for cell providers

When asked if UMA could be the beginning of the end for cell phone providers, Delaney and Chen agree it’s not likely.

No one can cover the large swaths of territory covered by cellular other than cellular,” says Delaney. “There are too many Wi-Fi operators and Wi-Fi is unlicensed meaning that you cannot deliver quality of service guarantees because no one party owns the spectrum.”

“Wi-Fi won't end the need for cell providers,” predicts Chen. “Wi-Fi is a local area technology and was not designed for the wide geographical coverage of cellular.” Chen says that devices will be smart and choose the best connection it can. That means Wi-Fi when you are at fixed locations like home or office or happen to be near a hotspot, and cell for the rest, he says.

Last updated: Jun 1, 2008




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