DoCoMo Launches 3G Wi-Fi Phone

The Japanese operator's latest handset works on both 3G networks and wireless LANs.

Japans NTT DoCoMo Inc. on Tuesday formally launched the N900iL, a handset combining 3G and IP telephony capability, the first such phone to appear from a major network operator.

The handset, demonstrated by executives at the Tokyo launch, is nearly identical to NECs N900i, designed for FOMA, DoCoMos implementation of the WCDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access) 3G standard. The N900iL adds a wireless LAN chip set and IP telephony, making the handset 5 grams heavier at 120 grams. It will go on sale in Japan this fall for between 40,000 and 50,000 yen, or between $367 and $458.

The N900iL is DoCoMos venture at combining three emerging technological trends: cell phones that can connect wirelessly to home or business land lines, dedicated IP telephony handsets, and 3G. The principal appeal of IP-based handsets, often based on the SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) protocol, is the prospect of cheap or free voice calls over the Internet. Combination cordless and cell phones are also partly aimed at reducing cell phone bills; early examples from the United Kingdoms BT and South Koreas KT use Bluetooth to connect to land lines, and are targeted at consumers.

DoCoMos handset is the first to use WLAN to connect to a land line, and is aimed at corporate users. Customers will not necessarily be able to take advantage of the low-cost aspects of IP telephony, since the handset requires an NEC IP telephony server and will not initially be compatible with public WLAN hot spots. The carrier said it may add support for its own M-Zone hot-spot network.

In the office, the handset can act as a standard FOMA device or can be set to receive and make calls over the corporate phone network using a WLAN. The N900iLs built-in browser can display documents stored on the corporate network, including Web-based e-mail and shared calendars. However, Web pages must be formatted in the same Compact HTML format used by DoCoMos iMode mobile Web service.

Users will also get some additional features, such as a "presence" function that displays a users status, and PC-like instant messaging, DoCoMo officials said.

Dual-mode usage takes a considerable toll on battery life. When used as a standard FOMA phone or solely over the WLAN, the device promises at least 230 hours of standby time or 140 minutes of talk time; in dual-mode use, standby time drops to 150 hours. DoCoMo uses its own Passage Duple system for integrating the two networks.

With the booming popularity of public WLAN hot spots, cellular network operators have begun integrating their cellular and WLAN data networks. T-Mobile has been one of the most aggressive, analysts say, with the recent launch of its TM3 plan, offering data access to the companys network of thousands of hot spots along with 3G/GPRS/GSM and promising seamless switching between networks. Such integration has been slower than it should be, for both data and voice, partly for technical reasons and partly because operators are less than eager to cannibalize their cellular revenues, according to some industry observers.

Several major vendors are planning multinetwork handsets. Earlier this month Motorola won FCC approval for the enterprise-oriented CN620 handset combining WLAN and GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) calling. T-Mobile said last month it would offer a new version of the German MDA PDA phone capable of making WLAN calls.

But wireless IP phones are a long way from posing a threat to cellular operators, according to analyst Robin Duke-Woolley of IT consultancy e-principles. "They are more of a gimmick than anything else. Theyre not really a serious form of communication," he said.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to find out why columnist Guy Kewney thinks wireless VOIP is a joke.

There is a potential market for multinetwork handsets, but only when they are as easy to use as a conventional cell phone, Duke-Woolley said: "People are increasingly using their mobile phone wherever they are, whether its at home, in the office, or in the street. If there are ways of making those calls cost less without the user having to do much, thats probably going to be very useful. Cutting costs is not as important as ease of use."

Besides cost-cutting, multinetwork handsets have the potential to make life easier for users by letting them use a single phone number on home, corporate and public networks. Currently networks arent integrated enough to make such a scheme practical, but the spread of IPv6 and authentication standards such as 802.1X will help, Duke-Woolley said.

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