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Will Wi-Fi prove to be a key technology integrated into future cellphones? Panellists speaking yesterday at the annual Telecosm conference in Squaw Valley, California believe so.

"I believe Wi-Fi will become a standard component of cellphones in the future," said Sky Dayton, CEO of Wi-Fi network provider Boingo Wireless, according to a Comms Design report.

However, Dayton's vision will only be realised if mobile phone network operators decide that Wi-Fi has a role to play alongside cellular technology within the handset. The two technologies certainly offer value to data customers, allowing providers to offer high-speed Internet access at fixed locations, from which users can roam into slower but more widespread 2.5G or 3G coverage.

That's US telco SBC's plan, for instance. Earlier this month, it said it plans to build a 20,000-node network of Wi-Fi hot-spots tied into the 3G network offered by its Cingular subsidiary.

But Wi-Fi in the handset? There's a benefit for data-based applications, such as video streaming, where the higher bandwidth offered by Wi-Fi could yield better playback quality, provided users find themselves in range of a hot-spot.

Such an idea does now appear to be attracting the interest of cellular network providers. "I've seen a market shift in my discussions with carriers in the last 18 months," said Intel president Paul Otellini. "They have moved from saying, 'heck no,' to seriously considering it."

And not just for data traffic. "I was in the lobby of this conference center today making a voice over IP call over Wi-Fi," said Otellini. "This is happening a whole lot faster than most people thought."

Representatives from US handset maker Qualcomm were less enthusiastic, however. While the carriers will start the ball rolling, it may not happen as quickly as the other panelists expect. "Basically, we are just waiting for the carriers to ask us to put it in the chip sets," said Qualcomm executive VP Paul Jacobs. "I think we'll see the demand for it eventually."

Spurring that demand will be a desire to use Wi-Fi to take some data traffic off the cellular network to improve the network performance for business customers.

But fellow Qualcomm VP Jeff Belk warned that such a move must be backed up by better hot-spot infrastructure. To achieve Wi-Fi's full bandwidth potential, it can't be limited by the slower speed of the DSL connections used to hook many WLAN base-stations to the Internet, he said. ®

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