SBC To Use Wi-Fi To Extend Cingular's Reach
By Carlo Longino, Wed Oct 13 23:00:00 GMT 2004

An exec from the mobile operator's wireline parent says it will use its public Wi-Fi hotspots to supplant Cingular's cellular coverage.

Plenty of carriers are announcing plans to converge cellular and Wi-Fi networks, and the first equipment that can operate on both types of networks is beginning to emerge. The chief technical officer of Baby Bell SBC, Chris Rice, said today that the company's public hotspots will be used to carry calls from Cingular users by 2006. He says the phones will automatically sense when a user is near an SBC access point, and automatically handoff, and that SBC expects such equipment by the end of 2005. He adds that SBC can fill in gaps in Cingular's cell coverage using hotspots in restaurants and homes to alleviate some of the spectrum demands on the mobile carrier.

His comments point to an integration of Cingular services with SBC's forthcoming VOIP offerings, but what he doesn't say raises a lot of questions. The Reuters story says that SBC will offer a Wi-Fi/cellular service to businesses in 2005, with standard VOIP for consumers also that year, and it follows that Rice sees these "hotspots" as providing the backbone for this expanded Cingular coverage. But if a user signs up for the VOIP service, which uses Wi-Fi for wireless coverage in their home, will any Cingular user with the right phone be able to access their AP and use it for a VOIP session, potentially choking the bandwidth? If this is the case, what benefits will get passed on to the consumer for letting their access point and broadband connection become part of the Cingular network?

The timetable for automatic handoff seems optimistic, too. The converged systems that carry voice over 802.11 or the cellular network from NTT DoCoMo and Motorola require special client equipment, and only work on an enterprise's "home" network. The HP iPaq that T-Mobile sells can only hand off from GPRS to a T-Mobile or open hotspot, and one of the major sticking points in the implementation of UMTS networks was the handoffs between them and 2G GSM networks. The real killer will be handing off a voice call from the cellular network to a VoWi-Fi session.

Some of Rice's comments sound a little strange, but if nothing else reflect that even Baby Bells -- not often known for being the swiftest movers in the telecommunications industry -- are putting solid plans for convergence in place.