Wireless Services: What Lies Ahead?

Industry leaders debate the future of wireless services at the CTIA Wireless show in New Orleans.

NEW ORLEANS—Boingo Wireless Inc. and T-Mobile U.S.A. Inc. on Tuesday announced plans to combine wireless LAN and 2.5G network services, as industry leaders discussed the future of both.

At the CTIA Wireless show here, Boingo CEO Sky Dayton said that his company and T-Mobile are developing software that will make it easier for users to switch from T-Mobiles branded "HotSpot" wireless local area "Wi-Fi" networks to its GPRS (general packet radio service) wide area networks.

"I think it serves as a model to the industry of what were going to see in the future," Dayton said during a keynote session here. "A user doesnt want to think about what service is available. They just want to get connected."

The software will include help files, a hot spot location directory, and a set-up process that helps users move between networks with limited hassle.

The WLAN hot spot market is growing, without question. There are about 3,000 commercial, pay-per-use WLANs deployed throughout the United States. Toshiba and Accenture at the beginning of the year began selling a so-called hot spot in a box, and at CTIA Toshiba officials said that they have sold more than 3,000 of them since January. They attribute this to the cost of the product, which sells for a mere $199.

"Were driving down the cost of hot spots," said John Marston, vice president of business development at Toshibas commercial systems group in Irvine, Calif. "If you spend a lot on a hot spot then you dont make any money."

In fact, while leaders in the wireless industry all acknowledge that 802.11b "Wi-Fi" WLAN technology has its place, they dont agree on the commercial viability of public hot spot services.

"Right now its a bit like herding cats," said Tim Donohue, president and CEO of wireless carrier Nextel Communications Inc., noting that because WLANs are so easy for end users to deploy, its not easy to turn them into a commercial business. "Skys trying to put it together, and God love him for it, but from my perspective its not ready for prime time yet."