Wi-Fi roaming comes to GSM

Roaming between mobile phone networks and Wi-Fi hot spots - together with a single bill for both services - is the aim of new initiatives from HP and Juniper

Hewlett-Packard and Juniper Networks on Monday joined the growing number of telecom equipment makers trying to combine wireless networking and mobile phone services.

Wi-Fi hot spots are springing up around the country but to date have been awkward to use because the hot spots are mostly independent and operate separately from wireless mobile networks. Mobile phone operators are hoping to cash in on Wi-Fi's expected surge in popularity (analyst firm Gartner Dataquest predicts that 50 million people will be using hot spots by 2006).

Networking vendors are keen to benefit from the demand for equipment from the operators. HP is to resell software that lets wireless carriers give subscribers the ability to roam onto public Wi-Fi networks and get one bill -- just like they would when roaming between different mobile phone networks. Juniper Networks, meanwhile, has unveiled new equipment meant to make it easier for wireless carriers to add Wi-Fi to their list of service offerings. Like HP's gear, Juniper's equipment is meant for wireless carriers to install on their networks.

HP's partner is Transat, a start-up making telco-grade hot-spot software. "Users will get voice and data services from a single provider," said Maurice Marks, chief technology officer at HP's service provider division. "They will get the ability to use extra bandwidth when they reach a hot spot."

For service providers, the benefit is the ability to get these hot spots up and running quickly, and integrated into their existing billing systems. "GSM and 3G operators can offer data services whether the customer is inside the hot spot or outside," said Marks.

Transat, is a 36-person start-up in Texas, has a Swiss operator, Togewa, piloting its software. The company, founded by staff from Nokia, Bell Labs and Pacific Bell Wireless also has investment from Intel. The Transat software includes a server run on the network, and a downloadable client on the mobile device. The system handles billing and authentication, linking into the service provider's management software, and can also allow roaming between GSM and Wi-Fi if the client hardware is up to it.

HP has a long involvement in telecoms, said Marks: "We have 60,000 service professionals in HP, and can supervise the installation of hot spots," he said.

The system should offer cost savings over conventional systems, but these will not be clear in the small-scale trials currently underway, said Marks. "If everything goes well, the saving could be as much as 40 percent, when the trials are scaled up," said Cari Rhodes, director of marketing at Transat. "But at every single carrier the situation is different. Every deal needs return on investment analysis."

CNET News.com's Ben Charny contributed to this report

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