Wi-Fi spreading fast among mobile phones

Phones shipped with Wi-Fi jumped to 139 million in 2009, making up about one-quarter of Wi-Fi devices, and more will soon sport 802.11n

Amid the industry hype about 4G (fourth-generation) mobile technologies this week at the CTIA Wireless trade show, the Wi-Fi Alliance will play up the growing importance of wireless LANs on mobile phones.

The number of phones shipped with Wi-Fi jumped to 139.3 million in 2009, up from 92.5 million in 2008, the group said. ABI's research indicates that annual shipping number will surpass 500 million units by 2014, when 90 percent of all smartphones will have the technology. And even as smartphones make up more of the handset market, Wi-Fi is expected to grow more common in less-expensive phones, said Kelly Davis-Felner, Wi-Fi Alliance marketing director.

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Wi-Fi gives cell phone users a tool for browsing the Web and downloading data faster than on a cellular connection, as well as a safety valve for carriers with overburdened networks. Some, such as AT&T, have been steadily adding Wi-Fi hotspots to their infrastructure in pursuit of both of these goals. AT&T acquired hotspot provider Wayport in 2008. In addition to providing a place for laptop users with data cards to work, those freely available networks for AT&T subscribers can give frustrated iPhone users a bump in speed while reducing the strain on the carrier's 3G network.

At the same time, cell phones are becoming a bigger part of the Wi-Fi world, the organization said. About one-quarter of the 580 million devices that the Wi-Fi Alliance certified last year were phones, including 1.9 million specialized Wi-Fi-only phones.

"We knew we were going to hit that number in the next few years, but we weren't really expecting it for 2009," Davis-Felner said.

She estimated that the Alliance certifies about 95 percent of all the handsets that have wireless LAN capability and gives them the Wi-Fi seal of approval. The worldwide lineup of phones that include Wi-Fi is no longer limited to a small upper echelon of products: In 2008, the Alliance certified just over 100 individual handset models. In 2009, it signed off on 252 such products.

The latest Wi-Fi technology, IEEE 802.11n, is also starting to find its way into phones. At least one phone with 11n -- Samsung's Wave -- has been announced, and Google's Nexus One reportedly contains the hardware for it. The move toward 11n is inevitable across the Wi-Fi universe as that technology becomes the default for more products, driving up 11n chip production volumes and driving down prices, Davis-Felner said.

Most phones won't achieve the high throughput that 11n can deliver on other products -- 200Mbps or more -- because they typically will be built to handle just a single stream of data in and out of the device. But 11n phones should get a more reliable signal over a longer distance from the access point, Davis-Felner said. An 11n network is also more efficient, so the phone will expend less energy communicating, she added.

Handset owners eventually will also be able to take advantage of the next major feature being pushed by the Wi-Fi Alliance, Wi-Fi Direct. With this technology, which the Alliance expects to begin certifying in the third quarter, devices can organize themselves in ad hoc networks without an access point. Laptops will probably be the first devices with Wi-Fi Direct, but phones will follow shortly after, Davis-Felner predicted. With it, phones will be able to stream content directly to consumer electronics devices such as TVs. As long as carriers allow it, they will also be able to serve as hubs for small local networks, linking several devices via Wi-Fi and letting them share the phone's 3G or 4G Internet connection.

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