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3G and Wi-Fi: Will they Ever Get Together?

One has distance, the other has speed. Together, they could make a pretty sweet pair.

Given the relative strengths of third-generation (3G) wireless networks and 802.11-based wireless LANs, some analysts, Wi-Fi operators and even big wireless carriers say it makes sense for the two technologies to come together in some fashion. Products are already being announced and it appears likely that the market will see 3G-to-Wi-Fi roaming agreements soon, perhaps within the next one to two years.

"We are aggressively in agreement that 2.5- and 3G wide area services, and 802.11 local area services, are a perfect compliment to each other," said Dan Lowden, vice president of marketing at WayPort. One of the largest 802.11 service operators in the nation, Wayport has hotspots in 475 hotels and 10 airports. If those hotspots could seamlessly interconnect to 3G networks, he said, "it creates an opportunity to really provide a complete and comprehensive data service to customers."

At Sprint PCS, spokeswoman Jennifer Walsh voices a similar stance: "We definitely view Wi-Fi as complimentary to our PCS Vision service." Sprint PCS has no specific plans in place for a 3G-to-Wi-Fi products at this point, she said, but the concept is under active development. "Any service that creates the larger demand for wireless coverage, we see as a positive thing."

Connections between Wi-Fi and 3G are well within the realm of technological possibility. In mid-September, for example, Lucent announced that it had achieved a successful handoff of a wireless data call from a Wi-Fi network to a 3G network. The tests were completed using Lucent's 3G UMTS network equipment, a laptop PC equipped with a UMTS test mobile phone, a Proxim ORiNOCO 802.11 WLAN card and ipUnplugged's Roaming Gateway client/server software.

But that is only half the battle.

"Technically it can work -- but the business model, that is less clear," said Clark Dong, CEO of HereUAre, which until recently operated some 100 Wi-Fi hotspots. That firm ran into financial trouble and Dong is rethinking his own business model right now, so he is well aware of the challenges inherent in building a Wi-Fi network.

 At the most basic level, he said, it will be difficult to arrange a billing structure that satisfies the needs of network operators and carriers, without being unnecessarily cumbersome to the user. "If a session is shared between multiple operators, how will they split that?" he asked.

In one possible model, the 3G carriers could build their own Wi-Fi networks -- take the Swiss WeRoam service for example -- but few foresee this as a general solution. While carriers might build a few hotspots in critical areas, they will no doubt need to forge roaming relationships with operators of other hotspots in order to offer full coverage.

"The practical problem then is that you have too many different providers," noted Henning Schulzrinne, an associate professor of computer science and electrical engineering at Columbia University in New York. "If you have to establish a business relationship with each one of them, that is not going to be terribly efficient."

Inefficient, perhaps, but still the most likely model, according to some observers.

"Will we see more joint deals" between 3G carriers are 802.11 operators, predicted Martin Dunsby, vice president of operations at inCode Telecom, a wireless consultancy in La Jolla, CA. The administrative complexity inherent in such deals will not hinder the spread of wireless, he suggested, so long as it is kept out of sight of the consumer. "Ease of use is going to be needed to gain broad-based penetration of this. Is has got to be simple."

Wayport's Lowden said his firm already is moving ahead in an effort to strike such deals, which he believes will be nailed down in the next three to six months.

"That is absolutely going to happen," he said. "We are going to open it up to every wireless carrier, every ISP, as long as it make sense from a business perspective. These will be very similar to the roaming deals that we have today."

As Lowden sees it, existing 802.11 operators have a big advantage in this game. As 3G carriers move toward seamless roaming with Wi-Fi, "we can help them get speed to market," he said. Based on the strength of an existing Wi-Fi network, "we could partner with them and enable them to deploy practically overnight."

A lot of sticking points still will need to be worked out before Wi-Fi-to-3G roaming becomes commercially viable. Will the user be notified when roaming occurs? Will the user have a choice in the matter? How will the need for choice be balanced against the need for transparent handoffs?

While these business issues percolate, some analysts say it will take a significant hardware evolution to truly put Wi-Fi-to-3G handoffs on the map.

Hardware can be cobbled together to effect a handoff these days, but something better is still needed.

"The next stage will be when that capability is built in at the factory rather than in a separate card, and it will be a few more years before there is that capability," said Warren Wilson, practice director for mobile and wireless solutions strategies Summit Strategies. "Then another step will be when that capability is built into the main processing chip. That piece will take three to four years to play out."

802.11 Planet Conference What do the carriers think of 3G and Wi-Fi roaming? Join us at the 802.11 Planet Conference & Expo, Dec. 3-5 in Santa Clara, CA. One of our sessions will answer the question 3G and 802.11: Are they Friends or Foes?.