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Come Together

As telecom companies race to integrate wireless capability, mobile calling could get even better.

Two of the year's fastest-growing technologies are on a collision course: wireless LANs and VoIP. It's no secret how popular WLANs have become at work, and, of course, Wi-Fi hot spots are popping up everywhere from Starbucks to McDonald's. After downloading e-mail and Web browsing, one of the most promising uses of WLANs is digital voice calls (VoWLAN).

Companies like Alcatel, Avaya and Nortel Networks offer wireless LAN upgrades for their IP-based phone systems so workers can roam the workplace while talking. That's important to retail, factory and construction workers who spend most of their time on their feet.

We have widely available cellular networks for our mobile connections. But how's your reception in skyscraper canyons or deep inside your office walls? The slowest WLAN flavor (802.11b) still offers many times the bandwidth of the fastest cellular network, and VoWLAN calls save precious cellular minutes. Avaya is collaborating with Motorola and Proxim to release a "dual-mode" Wi-Fi/ cellular handset later this year that will let calls hop between cell and Wi-Fi, whichever network provides the strongest signal as you walk from office to car.

Traditional telcom companies like SBC and Verizon and their cellular step-companies want to extend that vision to hotels, airports and coffee shops-it's one reason for their urgency in creating their own networks of Wi-Fi hot spots. VoWLAN isn't intended to replace, but rather complement, their much-delayed 3G cell phone networks still in the works.

WLANs could offer better call quality in some locales, and, depending on the portable device used, would enable file and e-mail downloads, too. By year-end, dual-mode cellular and Wi-Fi radio combinations should facilitate phone calls from laptops and PDAs, says market researcher ON World. And by 2008, 70 percent of cell phones should be Wi-Fi-enabled. Why not check voice mail and e-mail while achieving oneness with a Big Mac or blowing the foam off a Starbucks double-latte-half-caf?

IP phone service providers like IDT, Net2Phone and Vonage have their own wireless plans. Market leader Vonage should have a VoIP handset that lets subscribers make calls over the Internet via a Wi-Fi hot spot by the fall. VoIP service customers already get phone adapters that are usually portable enough to be used for connections away from home or work. But wireless log-ons have got to be easier than finding a wired broadband connection in a public venue.

Integrating these diverse systems presents various security, power-usage and interoperability challenges, points out Mareca Hatler, director of research for San Diego-based ON World. But a strong tailwind is propelling them all toward a single point on the horizon. It's not a matter of "if"-it's a matter of "when."

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This article was originally published in the July 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Come Together.

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