Group Pronounces Cellular and Wi-Fi Husband and Wife
By Eric Lin, Fri Sep 03 03:45:00 GMT 2004

A group of 14 operators, handset and equipment manufacturers joined together to release a new open specification designed to facilitate Wi-Fi - cellular handoffs on dual mode handsets.

The Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) specification provides the technology for handsets to use GSM and GPRS services over unlicensed spectrum. It is not limited to Wi-Fi, but rather can use any IP connected wireless technology - Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or other emerging standards, to handle voice and data when an access point is available. The UMA spec works in both directions, transferring voice and data responsibility, even active calls, when a user comes in range of an access point, and then seamlessly transferring the handset back to the cellular network when an AP is no longer in range.

All of the US GSM operators are founding members as are mmO2 and Rogers Wireless. Nokia, Motorola, Siemens and Sony Ericsson -- these networks main handset suppliers as well as back-end heavyweights like Nortel, Alcatel and Ericsson are also members. Both T-Mobile and SBC (Cingular's, and soon AT&T Wireless's, parent company) have large Wi-Fi networks in addition to their nationwide cellular coverage. Convincing hardware suppliers to help them leverage all their networks is in everybody's best interest.

Motorola has already announced a dual-mode handset but it requires special 802.11a base stations from Proxim and Avaya. NTT DoCoMo has also partnered on a hardware-limited solution with NEC. Both of these dual-mode solutions were designed to sell the extra base station hardware as well as the handsets to large corporations that would adopt this solution in their offices. The dollar signs in their eyes temporary blinded the manufacturers and operators to the fact that far more people have access to Wi-Fi networks than corporate users, and while they couldn't sell these users expensive voice over WLAN access points, they could sell these users handsets -- many handsets -- but only if the handsets work at publicly accessible hotspots.

Giving users the opportunity to switch to faster data networks when they are available isn't just convenient, it could also convince them to switch their data activities from laptops to handsets. Currently even most smartphone users switch over to laptops for most of their computing needs. The allure of faster data, bigger screens and full keyboards is too tempting. However if the carriers and manufacturers can provide a device and accompanying technology that convinces users not to put down their handset when entering a hotspot, those users will become more attached to their handset for data needs -- at a hotspot or out on the cellular network. Dual-mode handoff could just be one of the keys to data addiction.