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BetaDot » Nokia UMA
Nokia Prototype WiFi Cell Phone

Everyone agrees the problem with cell phones is coverage and often times more than occasional weak reception. For some time, cell phones with built-in support for 802.11b/g and the capability to make calls over VoIP have been thought of as a solution to the problem. However, for a number of reasons, they have yet to make a meaningful impact on the market.


At last week’s CTIA Wireless 2006 industry confab, Nokia demonstrated new phones that can seamlessly transition from a cellular network to a WiFi hotspot without dropping the call. The phones take advantage of a protocol called Unlicensed Mobile Access, which enables the phones to take advantage of nearby 802.11b/g networks to route calls over VoIP when cellular reception becomes flaky.

In addition to Nokia’s demonstration, Samsung showed off its new UMA t709 phone, which joins the previously announced Nokia 6136 and Motorola A910 in the UMA handset space.

The big question is when these phones will make it to market. At CES, this year in January, Nokia had a couple of prototype WiFi/cellular phones on display. The problem, however, was getting any US carrier to agree to stock and support a phone with WiFi VoIP capability.

From the perspective of the cellular carriers, it’s easy to see why. More VoIP calls made over WiFi mean fewer calls placed over the existing carriers’ networks, possibly resulting in less revenue. In addition, companies such as AT&T and Verizon, which offer both cellular and landline service, fear that VoIP-enabled cellular phones will mean fewer customers opting for old-school, wireline home telephone service. It would be like killing one bird with two stones. Not exactly the goal any company has in mind.

It looks as though the new UMA phones will be supported first in Europe. France Telecom SA and northern European carrier TeliaSonera AB will begin offering UMA phones at some point this year. All the major carriers in the US are noncommittal about if and when they plan to offer WiFi/cellular phone combos.

“Pricing is always an issue,” said Cingular spokesman Ritch Blasi. “Who’s network are you going to be using, and do you share minutes? … People might expect that because they’re calling on a Wi-Fi that they’re paying for a broadband connection into their home already.”

On the flip side, landline providers have lost and continue to lose customers to VoIP services such as Vonage and Skype. In addition, many North Americans and Europeans are managing well with just cell phones. However, with the increasing deployment of municipal WiFi networks, the time where users are always in reach of a WiFi network, could be just around the corner.

Some analysts believe the WiFi-enabled handset market will reach 100 million by 2009; that is difficult to envision given the resistance of most cellular carriers. However, it could very well be that consumer demand will push the cellular carriers into offering UMA phones.

Summary

Cell phones with built-in support for 802.11b/g and the capability to make calls over VoIP.


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Comments

What would such phones do to, say, St. Cloud, Florida, municipal WiFi? Add traffic? Since the St. Cloud WiFi is free, callers would be motivated to get the phone through whatever password/account process that might otherwise block them.

Posted by Ralph Cringely on April 15th, 2006 at 11:06 am

Much has been said about dual wifi/cell phones, but little attention has been paid to the underlying wifi network infrastructure, which is almost 100% unable to support the most basic VoIP requirements such as latency, QoS, dynamic bandwidth assignment, authentication, etc. There is an interesting business model hardly notices bu many, based on providing the next generation wifi networks necessary to support the promising dual phones of the future.

Posted by Manuel Landa on April 17th, 2006 at 9:20 pm
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