Wi-Fi Alliance Talks Dual Mode

PDAStreet speaks with the Alliance director about issues surrounding the convergence of Wi-Fi and cellular handsets and services.
The Wi-Fi Alliance is partnering with the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA) to develop and promote certification programs for overlapping aspects of converged phones, such as Radio Frequency (RF) performance and the handover between cellular and Wi-Fi networks. The two groups announced this collaboration at the giant CTIA 2006 show, where a number of fixed-mobile convergence/dual mode/Wi-Fi-cellular technologies and solutions were shown off and demonstrated less than two weeks ago. Twenty dual-mode handsets are already in the works for this year alone, for example.

PDAStreet recently got the chance to speak with Wi-Fi Alliance managing director Frank Hanzlik about his organization's role in the partnership and Wi-Fi/cellular convergence in general.

Hanzlik started off by saying the the Wi-Fi Alliance/CTIA coming together is a big deal.

"It really shows we kind of burned a few at the table. There was some concern in the past about Wi-Fi and 3G, as to how well they worked together or didn't," Hanzlik explained to PDASteeet. "But today, there are a lot more people feeling good about how complimentary these technologies really are," he continued.

Each organization is similarly respected in their field, Hanzlik noted. The Wi-Fi Alliance has been certifying for Wi-Fi components of cell phones and smartphones, while groups like the CTIA have been approving the cellular components separately already.

This agreement will allow their joint members, the handset makers, to "really go to a common set of labs and get all this testing done in one place, in a much more integrated way. So some of this (the agreement) is an integration piece," according to Hanzlik; in addition to certifying and determining how well 3G and Wi-Fi work in close proximity.

CTIA: The Show
As for CTIA - the show - from his perspective what excited him was the number of dual-mode related technologies that were on display; including a number of good-looking handsets from top-tier manufacturers (Samsung's new T709, for example) as well as demos like Nokia's UMA (Unlicensed Mobile Access) demonstration.

"There's some interesting stuff that will start to become a reality in the next six months," he added. With some early kinds of carriers finally delivering dual-mode products and services with another set expected to jump in over the next year.

When we referred to those offering dual-mode service as carriers, Hanzlik suggested we be careful as to how that term is used. That's because there could be some very different strategies that some of the fixed-line operators implement, for example. He used the example of British Telecom.

British Telecom currently has a turnkey Bluetooth dual mode (expected to go Wi-Fi soon) offering for homes that goes MVNO out of the house through Orange. This solution would be very different from what a mobile carrier like T-Mobile might offer in the U.S., with its extensive hot spot network and cellular proprieties.

You may see different messages for the consumer and for the enterprise or vertical market kind of user as well.

Enterprise
We then talked about how in all the chatter about dual mode, the data area sometimes gets overshadowed. "I think it does," agreed Hanzlik. "In fact, I think that there's a lot of folks that'll come out which will be very much a data play, especially in the enterprise."

At a Gartner enterprise event Hanzlik attended, he said a lot of people initially saw this as a data extension. These executives viewed Wi-Fi/cellular convergence as a way to leverage dual-mode devices to cost effectively extend e-mail connectivity by extending their networks wireless footprint. Voice was something they could capitalize on further down the road.

Hanzlik said he's seen stats where 60 percent of cellular calls in a campus environment is to other people within the company. So people look at that and wonder if there is an alternative to making those calls more cost effective as well. "That makes the kind of case a CFO can love," he said. And you often have a ready-made Wi-Fi footprint to build off of already.

Carrier Requirements
But will providers (be it mobile or fixed-line operators) have their own requirements?

Certainly the various providers may have there own specific hardware they support, in terms of equipment - such as routers - so that may come up, but it will vary, Hanzlik said. From the Wi-Fi Alliance's side, once products become Wi-Fi Certified, all the basic interoperability and security is taken care of.

So he thinks carriers will probably build off that. "Depending on how they really want to position the service. Do they want it data first? Voice? Do they want to do both? That'll dictate some of the software they load on their access points, the client utilities that they may make available to you," Hanzlik explained.

But remember, you're not just stuck with what your carrier offers in terms of dual-mode service. You'll have a fully functional Wi-Fi radio in that smartphone that can be used for other applications. On your own, you may want to load a Skype client. So you can make VoIP calls to your Buddy list when you're not at a T-Mobile (your dual-mode provider) hot spot, for instance.

Reliability
The issue of reliability highlighted the differences between licensed (cellular) and unlicensed spectrum (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, UWB).

Telco operators often speak of achieving five nines (99.999 percent) availability, which is their attempt to get as close to 100 percent uptime for voice calls as possible. Yet even with the five nines goal, anyone will attest to still getting dropped calls, especially with cellular service.

The standards for unlicensed spectrum systems are different. And since it is a far less mature technology, reliability is often a bigger hurdle, especially with voice. PDAStreet suggested end-users may come to expect higher reliability for their dual-mode handsets because of their cellular component than regular Wi-Fi calling.

Because carriers are involved in dual mode however, Hanzlik expects reliability issues to be positively addressed. He said carriers are going to have a lot control over how the Wi-Fi networks they manage are gong to be setup and managed for success. For example, "The number of access points they've put in. Do they want to have those capabilities in the 2.4 GHz band only or over time do they want to leverage some of the extra head room in the 5 Ghz band, " he said.

His sense is that we are going to see more of the dual-mode action in managed networks, hence more reliability. Someone is in control. Be it the enterprise or carrier.

An enterprise may give a voice call a preference over an e-mail, for example, in certain areas through quality of service software; or a hot spot run by carrier like T-Mobile, for example, will attempt to deliver operator-like reliability.

As for Wi-Fi networks that aren't managed, you'll experience the same problems as you do today.

"Outside of that, if you're over at Joe's Coffee shop, where Joe's brother-in-law put up the access point off a DSL modem; maybe you're okay, maybe you're not okay," Hanzlik pointed out. "If 50 people descend there and decide to start downloading videos and making calls, you can rest assured, you're going to have a problem."

"To some extent you get what you pay for," he added.

While the dual-mode service for early adopters may not necessarily be as smooth as making a cell phone call today. There will be positive trade offs. For instance, Hanzlik said he recently heard from one of the major handset vendors that the voice quality from their Wi-Fi handsets was superior to some of their cellular handsets even.

And the handsets won't be just for prosumer and enterprise users. As we mentioned in our article about the Nokia demo, they used the high-end N80 and lower-end 6136. Hanzlik explained that the Fixed-Mobile Convergence Alliance - an influential group of carriers - was instrumental in getting the handset makers to build a richer portfolio of products than we typically would see at this early point in the game.

They basically told manufacturers, if you build your dual mode handsets to our specifications, we'll use them on our networks.

This article was first published on PDAStreet.com.






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