Wi-Fi poised to supplement 3G

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

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."

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