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Wi-Fi roaming: US T-Mobile gets it, BT drops it

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While BT is busy cutting off its Fusion customers, T-Mobile USA has announced a deal with Meru to provide cellular roaming to Wi-Fi networks.

BT is replacing BT Fusion Business with Office Anywhere, which the former monopoly describes as being cheaper and coming with a free BlackBerry too. But for customers who were using Fusion's Universal Mobile Access (UMA) capability to get coverage, that's little solace. Consumers will also lose BT Fusion come the end of March.

The concept of getting punters to install their own cellular base station, and provide backhaul over their existing internet connection, is pretty simple - but practicalities mean that most of us are still using the nearest cell tower even from within our homes and offices. BT originally tried using Bluetooth to route calls to an in-home hub which could then send them over the ADSL line, but Bluetooth proved ineffective, so BT moved to Wi-Fi connections.

But Wi-Fi has its own set of problems, such as needing specially-adapted handsets and hitting battery life pretty hard, and BT reckons the offer it's pushing onto BT Business Fusion customers will save them a tenner a month - but that's not going to help those lacking coverage. Cost may be a factor in BT's decision, but the problem of supporting only selected handsets is, no doubt, the critical issue.

That's still not stopping T-Mobile USA, who today announced it'll be using kit from Meru to provide UMA functionality. Meru has some clever technology allowing access points to share frequencies, with centrally-controlled soft handoffs, which will most likely make roaming between cellular and Wi-Fi networks seamless - as long as one's handset supports the latter.

Verizon, meanwhile, has announced it is going the Femtocell route already explored by Sprint. Femtocells use cellular technology and thus work with every handset, but they can be more expensive to buy (Verizon's will set you back $250 - no operator subsidy provided), and those deployed by both Sprint and Verizon only support 2G networks; so no high-speed data despite being connected over a high-speed internet connection.

3G femtocells have the potential to replace Wi-Fi in homes and ultimately offices, but they've been promising that potential for a year or two now without a single commercial deployment. With the Mobile World Congress only a couple of weeks off we're being inundated with promises of great things being announced at the show, but unless it's a commercial deployment of femtocells by a decent-sized network operator, then it will likely get filed with the other technologies that seemed like a really good idea at the time. ®

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