Wi-Fi Phones Bring Freedom, Phobia

By Jim Louderback  |  Posted 2003-04-24

Wi-Fi Phones Bring Freedom, Phobia

I really like the Nextel service. Its direct connect feature—basically a walkie-talkie on steroids—is just so darn useful. But coverage problems limit its effectiveness—dead cells inside buildings and outside metropolitan areas can make connecting hit-or-miss.

But help is coming from a new direction. Wi-Fi, the panacea for just about everything, may well help solve cell-phone connection problems, and also usher in a new era of one-person one-phone. From my perspective, it cant happen soon enough.

Lets take it one step at a time. First Wi-Fi phones. Why add the 802.11 networking capability into a cell phone? For Cisco, which announced last week that itll deliver a Wi-Fi phone in June, its all about Voice over IP in the enterprise. Your phone works when its connected to your Cisco-based Wi-Fi network, but turns into a doorstop when you walk out the door.

Im more excited about traditional cellular phones combined with Wi-Fi. Ericsson last week announced a dual-mode chipset that combines CDMA2000 with 802.11, a melding of technologies that lets you bypass the standard cell-phone network whenever youre within range of an open Wi-Fi hub. And Motorola says theyll deliver a Wi-Fi-based iDen phone—for the Nextel network—within a year or so.

Why Wi

Why Wi-Fi?

We all know that cell-phone coverage aint perfect. Inside cavernous office buildings, down in the basement, in an elevator, all of these are cell-phone dead zones. Nextels Direct Connect feature is particularly susceptible to failure in those places.

But if your network group has done its job correctly, youll probably have Wi-Fi access in most of those places. Imagine being able to seamlessly roam from the cell-net to your wireless net in the office – or at home. Itll probably save you money too, because the Wi-Fi phone calls, made over the Internet, will effectively be free.

But its a network integration nightmare, according to Ken Arneson, CEO of Chameleon Technologies, a new startup designed to bring carrier-grade billing and provisioning to Wi-Fi networks.

Although billing is a big problem, call routing is even worse. "If I place a call, what IP address does it go to?" Thats a big one. Then what about "NAT, firewalls, masquerading, all those things", he asks. When you roam from the cell network to the IP network, how does the connection get managed? What about hopping from one Wi-Fi subnet to another?

Its a big problem but solvable, and thats what Chameleons trying to do, along with providing security, authentication and keeping track of the minutes. The company is first working on the problem from a data perspective, although the voice side is on the road map – Arneson spent years at McCaw Cellular after all, and knows the market pretty well.

Chameleon provides the flipside to what Seattle neighbor company NetMotion Wireless is trying to do—deliver seamless roaming and security to business users whether they are connected to a corporate network or public hotspot.

Instead of an enterprise network approach, Chameleon builds a carrier-style roaming and billing infrastructure for Wi-Fi networks, much like what cell-phone companies have today. Currently operating in Benton County, Wash., Chameleons software lets the county use Wi-Fi hubs to extend its fiber infrastructure to homes, businesses and consumers. It does this by leasing its bandwidth to ISPs and other service providers – and Chameleons products handle all the authentication and back-end for the county, the ISPs and everyone in the middle.

Imagine a similar infrastructure for Wi-Fi/mobile phone hybrid networks. When your cell-phone detects an 802.11 network, it hops on, and just works. The back-end takes care of roaming, call routing, and all the other stuff we take for granted in the cellular world.

Its not a fantasy – according to Arneson, itll be here within 12 months.

One Person, One Phone,

One Number">
One Person, One Phone, One Number:

So how does all this get us back to a single phone number for everyone? Remember the coverage problems cell phones have – they often dont work inside buildings, homes, garages, etc. But imagine you had a Wi-Fi network at home and in the office, and a Wi-Fi-enabled cell-phone. Suddenly youd have crystal clear coverage at home and work – whenever you were within range of an 802.11 hub – because that phone would suddenly go Voice Over IP, instead of GSM, CDMA, whatever. And remember, the 2.4GHz spectrum used by 802.11b and g is the same as used by modern home wireless phones.

You wouldnt need a separate phone line at home. As long as the network was up, your phone would be too. Or if you like having a work and home phone number, imagine both routing to the same handset! Off work? Just dont answer that line.

Of course there are roadblocks. The technologys expensive right now, and a Wi-Fi phone today would suck battery-life faster than a boom box in Central Park. The phones would be pretty massive too – much bigger than todays svelte models.

But the concept has me hooked. Sooner or later, when a baby is born, shell get a birth certificate, social security number and phone number assigned at birth. Then, on her third birthday the phone will be implanted – itll be no bigger than a dime. And from then on shell hear voices in her head, until the day she dies.

OK, well maybe not just like that. But really, I am excited. This world is coming, whether you like it or not!

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