Coming soon, the do-everything wireless phone

Get ready for the do-everything wireless phone, and headsets, too, as manufacturers and developers in Atlanta at the annual Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association event work to cram the functions of cordless phones, cellular handsets and IP telephones into one portable device.

Craig Mathias, an analyst at Far Point Group, predicts that combined multiband cordless, cellular and voice-over-IP (VoIP) wireless LAN phones will be widely available by 2006.

At the chip level, Texas Instruments Inc. introduced a new, low-power Wi-Fi chip set for use in dual cellular/wireless LAN phones. TI's chip set can be configured to work under the 802.11 b/g standards (11Mbit/sec. and 54Mbit/sec., respectively, in the 2.4-GHz band) or to support those standards in addition to 802.11a (54Mbit/sec. in the 5-GHz band).

The new WLAN two-chip set cuts power use by 50% from earlier generations of TI WLAN chip sets and can support both data and VoIP operations, according to Marisa Speziale, a TI spokeswoman.

Mathias noted that power savings are key to the development of wireless combo phones, since adding wireless LAN functionality to a cellular or cordless phone reduces battery life sharply.

The new chip set can be used with TI cellular phone chip sets that operate under a number of standards and their derivatives, including the international Global System for Mobile Communications standard and the Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) standard, which is used primarily by U.S. carriers such as Verizon Wireless and the Sprint PCS Group.

Speziale said TI is working with Motorola Inc. in Schaumburg, Ill., to develop dual-mode cell and WLAN phones based on TI chips. Last year, Motorola announced plans to develop such phones, and it also formed a joint venture with Avaya Inc. and Proxim Corp. to develop WLAN infrastructure that will support wireless VoIP.

Here at the CTIA show, RTX Telecom A/S, a Danish wireless product developer, debuted a cordless phone that can make regular calls through the public switched telephone network (PSTN), as well as VoIP calls as a client of a VoIP softphone system running on a laptop computer.

The base station of the RTX cordless phone, which operates in the same 2.4-GHz frequency band used by wireless LANs, has two network connections to support the dual functions, according to David Rothenberg, the company's North American director of business development. One jack connects the base station to the PSTN; the other uses a Universal Serial Bus cable to connect to a computer running a softphone client from vendors such as Vonage Holdings Corp. in Edison, N.J., or Skype Technologies SA in Luxembourg, Rothenberg said.

When used as a standard cordless phone, Rothenberg said, a caller just dials the number. To use it as a cordless extension of a softphone client, a caller presses a button on the phone, finds a phone number stored in the softphone, highlights the name and clicks on it, and the call is completed over the Internet.

RTX is also working on development of a pure Wi-Fi cordless phone that operates over WLANs, Rothenberg said. Even though the company's cordless phones work in the same frequency as Wi-Fi, they don't experience any interference -- even on the CTIA show floor here at the Georgia World Congress Center, which is blanketed with numerous W-Fi networks. Rothenberg declined to specify when that hardware will be available.

RTX plans to sell its design to OEMs, which the company has considerable experience with, Rothenberg said. He claimed that the company's designs account for a quarter of today's cordless phones. RTX expects its VoIP cordless phone to sell for less than $100 at retail.

Plantronics Inc., a Santa Cruz, Calif.-based headset manufacturer, plans to use cordless phone frequencies in the unlicensed 900-MHz band to provide hands-free connections to laptop- or PC-based softphones and has formed a partnership with Skype, according to Beth Johnson, the company's senior director of product marketing.

Since a headset lacks the screens found on cordless phones, Johnson said, Plantronics uses voice commands to place a call to the Skype software. The 900-MHz frequency band provides about a 300-foot range, compared with a range of about 100 feet for hardware using the 2.4-GHz band. Johnson declined to say whether Plantronics plans to introduce a VoIP headset capable of operating over wireless LANs but said the company is well aware of trends in the VoIP market.

Far Point's Mathias predicted that wireless combo phones, especially cellular/Wi-FI models, will push the deployment and use of enterprise wireless LANs because "we are still voice-based creatures."

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