Service providers are hoping to close the gap in high-speed wireless network coverage by providing roaming capabilities through a legion of Wi-Fi network "hot spots" around the United States.
VoiceStream Wireless, AT&T Wireless and Sprint PCS are moving to add Wi-Fi, or 802.11b, access points to their nationwide networks. Meanwhile, access providers such as GoAmerica, GRIC and newcomer Boingo Wireless are looking to aggregate hot spots.
Wi-Fi hot spots are popping up everywhere, gaining a foothold over nascent 2.5G and 3G networks.
Although the business models of each of these companies may be slightly different, all have one goal: Allow mobile workers to seamlessly move between disparate wired and wireline networks. The Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association's recent trade show was filled with announcements aimed at extending this vision.
Wi-Fi has been generating so much attention because carriers have been slow to roll out next-generation networks, experts said. So far, not one carrier has achieved a full-scale roll-out, opting to start service in major cities and expand from there. Sprint PCS has said it will roll out its 2.5G network nationwide this summer, but has yet to specify a launch date.
Another rub is that 2.5G networks will offer relatively slow transfer speeds of 40 Kbps to 56 Kbps vs. 11 Mbps for Wi-Fi.
The lack of high-speed coverage is leaving corporate customers hungry for high-speed wireless access, said Richard Siber, a partner at Accenture, New York.
"Security is No. 1," he said. "Coverage, ubiquity and quality of service all fall under No. 2. The enterprise wants something that is high speed, not insecure."
Although Larry Mittag, vice president and chief technologist at mobile integrator Stellcom, San Diego, said he believes there is little profit for integrators that want to help operators deploy the low-cost Wi-Fi networks, he said the high-speed networks will benefit clients.
At the CTIA show, John Stanton, chairman of VoiceStream Wireless and chairman and CEO of Western Wireless, said VoiceStream will look to combine wireless GPRS service with T-Mobile, the company's Wi-Fi operator.
The need for more spectrum, coupled with the cost associated with network deployment, leaves carriers with gaps in its high-speed coverage, he said.
"It's an opportunity for us to leverage our existing environment, but it doesn't change the fundamental need for licensed services," he said. "I view Wi-Fi, if you will, to be 3G with training wheels."
T-Mobile was formed after VoiceStream acquired the assets of MobileStar, which provides Wi-Fi service in Starbucks coffeehouses and other public locations.
Also at the CTIA show, Rod Nelson, CTO of AT&T Wireless, said the wireless carrier is considering how to incorporate Wi-Fi into its wireless offerings. The carrier's options are to become an operator or to form a relationship with one or more operators, he said.
"We're looking into it," Nelson said. "I can't say what form that will take specifically."
A number of providers are looking to aggregate use of Wi-Fi hot spots across the country. The most prominent is Boingo Wireless, a start-up founded by Earthlink creator and chairman Sky Dayton.
Boingo Wireless' service, which counts Sprint PCS as an investor, will be bundled into Hewlett-Packard laptops, and service provider GoAmerica will sell access to the access provider's hot spots, he said.
GoAmerica also said it plans to aggregate other Wi-Fi operators, adding the high-speed network to its existing wireless data aggregation service. The company recently announced deals to add roaming agreements among Verizon Wireless' CDMA and VoiceStream's GPRS networks in the United States.