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Wi-Fi poised to supplement 3G

Research shows huge uptick in Wi-Fi-enabled mobile phones

Wireless Alert By Joanie Wexler, Network World
March 23, 2010 02:12 PM ET
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Industry analysis by expert Joanie Wexler, plus links to the day's wireless news headlines

At the International CTIA Wireless 2010 trade show and conference this week, ABI Research and the Wi-Fi Alliance are sharing new research that indicates rapid growth in the availability Wi-Fi-enabled mobile phones. ABI reports that out of 580 million Wi-Fi devices shipped in 2009, 141 million (nearly a fourth) were handsets.

Kelly Davis-Felner, Wi-Fi Alliance marketing director, adds that the Alliance has Wi-Fi-certified 506 handsets since 2003 and about half of those certifications were in 2009 alone. And 10 handsets that run the latest generation of Wi-Fi, 802.11n, were certified in January 2010, she says, noting that the 11n devices are made by LG and Samsung.

Wi-Fi spreading fast among phones

The strong uptick in Wi-Fi-enabled handsets is curious for a couple reasons: First, the mobile network operators fought Wi-Fi as a fierce competitor to their mobile WANs for a long time. Second, Wi-Fi/cellular fixed-mobile convergence (FMC), which leverages dual-radio handsets, has largely been a flop in businesses, both from the carrier side with early Unlicensed Mobile Access services and from the CPE side. So what's the interest?

Michael Morgan, ABI analyst, indicated in a statement that the operators have softened their stance toward Wi-Fi and plan to use it to offload traffic from their crowded licensed spectrum. Data consumed by today's smartphones are clogging 3G networks and require Wi-Fi's bandwidth and indoor reception benefits.

Indeed, operators such as AT&T, which bought Wayport and its Wi-Fi 20,000 hotspots in 2008, have said that they will intermingle infrastructures and transparently move users from cellular to Wi-Fi and back to ensure user connectivity and bandwidth. There is a measure of security concern, however, about business users moving on and off of public Wi-Fi hotspots.

Generally, users running client devices without IPSec VPN software are "in the clear" with their credentials when they first associate to a public Wi-Fi access point. While many laptops run the software, most handsets don't support IPSec VPNs (the Apple iPhone being a notable exception). It hasn't been made clear how an IPSec VPN (or other protection in the client-to-public AP association handshake) would kick in as the client switches between network types.

Jim Huempfner, vice president of the Industry Solutions Practice AT&T, said this in a Q&A following a March 10 AT&T Webinar on mobility in terms of 3G-to-Wi-Fi handoff security: "There are a number of people working on it. It's just a matter of timing for security and interoperability as you pass from one network to another and it will be solved."

Read more about wireless & mobile in Network World's Wireless & Mobile section.

Joanie Wexler is an independent networking technology writer/editor in Silicon Valley.

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