Coming soon: roaming between wireless networks

Wireless voice and data providers are offering products that promise to let users roam between both WiFi and wide-area networks.

Mobile workers who use wireless voice and data applications currently rely on two general categories of networks. Wireless local-area networks (WLANs), which use

standards such as IEEE 802.11 (also known as Wi-Fi) are designed to work within buildings or campuses, while wide-area networks are normally set up by telecom carriers for cellphone and mobile data device users.

Several manufacturers, including NEC America, Motorola and Intermec Technologies say they have tools that will bridge the gaps between the two categories.

Everett, Wash.-based Intermec Technologies Corp. announced Monday its 700 Series of mobile computers will run IBM WebSphere Everyplace Connection on both 802.11 and the 2.5G carrier networks using technologies such as general packet radio services (GPRS) and 1XRTT.

Intermec’s hardware is aimed at workers, such as sales reps service technicians, who need to upload and download information while they’re on the road, said Clark Richter, Intermec’s business development manager for field service and wide-area wireless.

“”Of the mobile applications that are out there, most people are running batch-type devices,”” Richter said. “”They put them in a communications docket in the end of the day and do a data transfer, and they’re not really doing anything in real time. In the new markets, field service, transportation and sales force automation, having a real-time exchange back to the enterprise is crucial.””

The Intermec 760 includes cards for 802.11b, GPRS, CDMA and 1X networks. In addition to data applications, companies are also looking for products that will let them provide voice-over-IP service over both 802.11 and wide-area networks, said Paul Weismantel, director of enterprise solutions for NEC America Inc.’s Irving, Tex.-based corporate networks group.

NEC America and Motorola Inc. this week said they are working on technology that will allow both voice and data devices to roam between WLANs and the carrier networks. The manufacturers plan to ship products next year.

Although NEC America plans to incorporate the technology into its NEAX 2000 and 2400 lines of private branch exchanges (PBXs), the vendors have yet to announce pricing, technology or how the products will be branded.

“”We will work towards a solution, and as that evolves, we will announce additional steps of who, what and how,”” said Nicholas Lebun, Motorola’s vice-president and general manager of WLAN seamless mobility. “”Which products will hit the market first, and in what succession, will depend on our marketing strategy and on the needs of the market.””

The first batch of products will include dual-mode handsets designed primarily for voice services, and will be marketed mainly at large organizations including health-care facilities and schools, Weismantel said.

One of the challenges of making such devices is getting an 802.11 IP phone with the same amount of battery life as a cell phone, Lebun said, adding cell phones usually offer more talk and standby hours than WLAN handsets.

Another challenge is making back-end hardware that will work with existing equipment, Weismantel said.

“”Our effort has a lot to do with integrating this solution with the IP PBXs, the network management system and with the wireless LANs,”” he said.

One Canadian analyst predicts more vendors will be announcing products that allow roaming between Wi-Fi and carrier networks.

“”I think there is a market for such a product here,”” said Wai Sing Lee, industry analyst with Frost & Sullivan’s Toronto office. “”When you have a system like that, where you can switch between the home network and the cellular communications network, and still have access to the same applications, I think that’s a pretty decent idea.””

Richter said devices like the Intermec 760 are in demand among manufacturers that sell goods by sending them to retailers on consignment, because sales reps need to check stores, inspect the marketing material and enter queries about inventory and sales into databases.

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