Telecom infrastructure provider Nortel Networks and Mobility Network Systems, only founded in 1999, announced a deal this week to enable seamless roaming between Wi-Fi and cellular networks. The move marks one of the first formal agreements between a major telecom supplier and one of the small startup companies developing cross network roaming capabilities.
Once integrated into Nortel's hardware, the Mobility Networks solution will allow Nortel's customers, who include many of the major wireless carriers such as Sprint, Verizon Communications, and BellSouth International, to integrate Wi-Fi networks into their current infrastructure without requiring additional hardware, according to Naveen Dhar, vice president of marketing and business at Mobility Networks.
"Our solution looks like an extension to a GPRS [General Packet Radio Service] network. It connects the Wireless LAN to the same core network for billing, authentication, and provisioning," said Dhar.
Most industry analysts claim that the 12-month to 18-month timeframe for cross-network roaming is not due to the technology. Rather, it revolves around integrating a new billing system, such as for hot spot subscribers, into the older -- and many say arcane -- billing systems used by the telecoms.
"Many times you will find a new telecom service is free only because the billing is not in place yet. We solved the problem through software," Dhar said.
Nevertheless, according to Dhar the system will not go live until late in 2003 mainly because the commercial applications for the technology are not yet available.
From the very beginning the switching technology will happen intuitively, according to Mark Morell, the director of strategic marketing at Nortel in Ottawa. The technology from Mobility Networks will be used for GSM (Global System for Mobile communications), GPRS, and Wideband CDMA networks.
Nortel is partnering with other companies to offer the same roaming between Wi-Fi and CDMA networks.
"As you leave a hot spot and service degrades you will switch to the wide area network and still have the same single bill, same services and applications by integrating GSM ... Wideband CDMA, and 1X networks," said Morell.
Nortel was not ready to announce any customer trials, but Morell also said he expected deployments within 12 months.
While immediate plans from all the telecom providers appears to be to integrate with wireless LANs, there is still an industrywide debate over to what extent WLANs and WANs will coexist and what the model will be in the future.
"At present WLAN has a place in the mobile network," said Morell.