SBC Communications Inc.—which is a partner with fellow RBOC (regional Bell operating company) BellSouth Corp. in owning U.S. cellular carrier Cingular Wireless—is planning a combined Wi-Fi and cellular phone service for business customers in 2005.
In an interview Wednesday with Reuters at the U.S. Telecom Association trade show in Las Vegas, SBC chief technology officer Chris Rice announced that SBC would offer customers phones that automatically switch calls between Cingulars network and SBCs network of Wi-Fi hot spots.
SBC has installed 3,500 access points thus far, and has revealed a goal of 20,000 such spots by 2006. Wi-Fi-to-cell service for enterprises could be launched earlier than consumer service, since SBC could install and configure access points on business premises and determine which phones business subscribers used.
Telecom hardware vendors are working on facilitating a seamless handoff—from enterprise WLANs using VOIP to cellular networks using circuit-switched voice. A joint announcement in January from Avaya, Motorola and Proxim addressed this hardware challenge, but no participating carrier accompanied the announcement.
For the carriers, Wi-Fi-to-cellular handoff represents a way to extend their wireless coverage using packetized IP voice along data lines, instead of costly tower buildout and spectrum purchase. For enterprises, it represents a way to cut down on costly cellular traffic for mobile employees.
To make these offerings work, Wi-Fi access points must be plentiful on the ground. Handsets must detect and compare the relative strengths of Wi-Fi signals and cellular signals, and mediating solutions must gateway the packetized voice into the enterprise LAN and hand off connections from one network to the other. SBC could not offer any infrastructure or pricing details on its rollout.