LongBoard Fine-Tunes WiFi-to-Cell Roaming

OnePhone application's 'patched' roaming solution dials a cellular call as the user approaches the edge of the WiFi network.

SANTA CLARA, Calif.—Executives at LongBoard Inc. said Tuesday that theyre in trials with a technology that will allow a mobile handset to roam between WiFi and cellular networks without dropping calls.

LongBoards OnePhone application will be rolled out for health-care providers this summer and will gain a European carrier most likely in the fourth quarter, executives said at this weeks Spring 2004 VON Conference & Expo here. LongBoard will market its OnePhone software application through resellers to carriers, asking handset makers to adapt their products to support the technology.

OnePhone doesnt quite offer the "seamless" roaming envisioned by the wireless industry, where a voice-over-IP (VOIP) connection on a WiFi network could be handed off to a cellular network without requiring the user to redial the call. Although the company has signed up two small handset makers, it has yet to sign a contract with Nokia or Sony Ericsson. LongBoard also faces hurdles with billing and dealing with the security protocols layered on top of WiFi.

But LongBoard, which has developed a research program designed to solve the problem of roaming, is a step closer to the "universal communicator" envisioned by people such as Intel chief technological officer Pat Gelsinger.

"We believe weve solved the problem of seamless roaming," said David Schwartz, director of marketing for LongBoard of Santa Clara, Calif.

LongBoards solution is a "patched" roaming solution, where the WiFi call and the cellular call are not handed off instantly from one to the other. Instead, as the user approaches the edge of the WiFi network, the handset detects the drop in signal strength and dials a separate cellular call. For a time, the user speaks on both the WiFi and cellular connections, dropping the WiFi call when its signal fades.

The solution uses Longboards Multimedia Application Platform (LMAP), a Unix-based software application that resides in the application layer of the network. LMAP includes an SIP proxy, an SIP registrar, an SIP gateway proxy, an integrated SIP Servlet Engine, a routing engine, a presence server and an ENUM server. Each server can accommodate between 5,000 and 100,000 subscriptions and will cost $30 to $60 per subscriber, depending on volume.

When a call is placed on the WiFi network, it gets routed through the LMAP engine. It takes about 500 milliseconds to create a call, Schwartz said. If a call is unexpectedly dropped by the WiFi network due to some catastrophic event, the phone will reroute the call through the cellular network.

If LongBoard can roll out the service this year, the deployment will anticipate the emergence of VOIP over WiFi, which attendees here said would take off in 2005.

"2005 will be the year of PDAs with WiFi VOIP-enabled," said Israel Drori, executive vice president and founder of Legra Systems, a WiFi switch provider.

IP data traffic is cheaper than transferring information over the PSTN network by at least an order of magnitude, according to executives here. When a user leaves the range of a WiFi network, however, the VOIP call drops.

WiFi calls can actually be made with greater quality over IP than via wireline; telephones encode voice data at 64 Kbits/s, but IP phones can use whatever quality of service they choose.

"As far as the amount of calls you can make on an 802.11b access point, the number is about 30," said Ujjal Kohli, founder and chairman of Meru Networks Inc., a designer of wireless LANs for enterprises, during a panel discussion. "Given that the range of an access point is about 100 feet, I can tell you thats plenty."

Only a limited number of handsets are designed for GSM and WiFi, and only three of those support the LongBoard technology: the HTC "Andes" and "Himalaya," which is OEMed to brands such as i-mate; and a single undisclosed handset from AnexTech, Schwartz said. The LongBoard software will work with the Symbian operating system for handhelds and Microsofts PocketPC 2003. PocketPC 2002 support is "flaky," Schwartz said, and the software does not currently run on the Palm OS. LongBoard is in talks with other handset makers that produce hybrid GSM-WiFi phones, such as Nokia and Sony Ericsson, he said.

LongBoard has formed partnerships with NEC Electronics Corp., the largest supplier to NTT, Japans largest telecommunications provider. In Europe, the company is in trials with an undisclosed "major" European carrier, Schwartz said, whose plans include residential service. There, LongBoard has partnered with Alcatel and Siemens.

Although LongBoard plans to hand off its products to resellers and system integrators, who will in turn sell the solution to carrier customers, the company plans to host servers initially for a health-care customer this summer, Schwartz said. Hospitals cannot allow their doctors to carry cellular phones, as the frequency interferes with hospital equipment.

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