Nextel Communications Inc., a Reston, Virginia, mobile operator that uses iDEN and has a large base of enterprise customers, began trials with Motorola of a cell phone with WLAN capability in the second quarter of this year, Nextel Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Barry West said in March. West also said the operator would offer by next year a Motorola phone based on Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Powered Smartphone platform.
Nextel is interested in the potential of services like those the NEC-Motorola partnership would allow, but it's too early to tell whether they could deliver what they seem to promise, West said Wednesday.
"The reason we're investigating this is ... to see if we can make the technology work, but also to see if there's a customer interest," he said. Employees might end up logging less time on the cellular network, but the operator could charge the company a fee to use the special service, he said.
"One of the principal benefits to the carrier would be the loyalty of the customer," West said.
NEC and Motorola are eyeing three vertical markets -- health care, hospitality and education -- as ripe for adoption of the system, which should become generally available in North America in mid-2004, Weismantel said.
Such a system could solve a problem that vendors have been trying to solve in other ways: Simplifying corporate phone systems down to just one phone for each employee to use in the office or on the road, said David Chamberlain, an analyst at Probe Group LLC, in Cedar Knolls, New Jersey. Managing phones could become easier too, because telecommunications managers wouldn't have to account for employees moving across the office to a new fixed-line phone.
"The cell phone and PBX industries have both put a lot of effort into doing that, historically," Chamberlain said. In the past, this required a separate cell phone network in the enterprise and users roaming onto that network when they were in the office. Being able to reuse a company's IP and WLAN infrastructure removes much of the cost and complexity, he said.
However, the companies are taking on significant and new technological challenges, particularly the problem of handing off calls between the two networks, said Meta Group Inc. analyst Chris Kozup.
"VoIP alone, even on a switched segment, has its immaturities," Kozup said. Most Meta Group consulting customers that are using WLAN for voice have found the networks can only support four or five simultaneous calls on one access point.
Such a technology might pay off for organizations in specific industries such as health care or warehousing, where some employees are highly mobile and need to be reachable at all times. However, if mainstream enterprises start using the dual-mode phones, it is likely to be in addition to wired desktop phones rather than to replace them, he said.