The ins and outs of using a Wi-Fi smart phone

Cheaper calls, more flexibility

I've been there, you've been there, and virtually every cell phone owner has been there: A nice place that's transformed into a hellhole the minute there is no signal from a wireless carrier. However, if this uncomfortable place happens to be near a Wi-Fi hot spot, you could be in luck.

A cell phone with built-in Wi-Fi technology can be connected to the Internet at hot spots just like a laptop computer. Then it can be used for VoIP phone calls, checking e-mail, reading news or uploading video clips to YouTube.

A lot of people, though, don't know that there are Wi-Fi-enabled mobile phones. In fact, only a handful of such phones are available in some markets, including the U.S. But they may be well be worth finding and buying because they provide access when there's no cellular network and can even lower your mobile phone bill.

During the past 12 months, I've used Wi-Fi on several smart phones both for work and for entertainment. Wi-Fi access has served me well -- it has proven to be fast, cost-efficient and easy to use. The downsides are that it is a power-hungry technology and can be somewhat tricky to set up.

But most importantly, I can choose which connection I use, and I can have Internet and phone access in places without mobile network coverage. It has also silenced the nagging voice of my inner budget manager that tends to complain about the high cost of mobile connectivity, especially when I'm roaming overseas.

How to do it

Laptop users know that Wi-Fi access typically costs a few dollars per hour, or per day, if you buy it one session at a time. However, vendors such as Boingo Wireless Inc., a large provider of Wi-Fi hot spots, has software for Windows Mobile smart phones for finding hot spots and signing on to its global network. For $7.95 a month, travelers with Wi-Fi-enabled phones get Wi-Fi wireless access in over 60 countries around the world.

A different approach is to join a global wireless community, such as Fon. Typically, members purchase a low-cost wireless Fon router, share its signal with the community and get access to other Fon hot spots anywhere in the world for free. Wi-Fi powered smart phones can access the Internet via Fon hot spots.

Generally speaking, connecting a smart phone to an 802.11b or 802.11g Wi-Fi router smart phone works in exactly the same way as from a laptop. If the router accepts authenticated connections only, use the smart phone's Internet browser to log in. If the router requires a secure connection, such as WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) or WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy), simply enter the security key when the phone asks for it.

However, some advanced wireless features may require a bit more tinkering than is the case on laptops. For example, if a wireless router allows only connections from devices whose MAC (media access control) addresses have been saved in the router, or if the router is hiding its network name (service set identifier), spending some time with the wireless settings of the smart phone will be required. Similarly, in my experience, it's often not readily clear where to access the screen on a smart phone for setting security keys. Solving all these problems varies depending on the phone and the network.

You must keep two other issues in mind when using Wi-Fi on a smart phone. First, you may need to be closer to the Wi-Fi router than you would with a laptop. The general rule of thumb is to stay within 30 feet (10 meters) of the Wi-Fi router. Smart phones, however, provide less power for the wireless signal than laptops. That, in turn, can shorten the range, which is why you may need to be more aware of where the router is located and be closer to it than otherwise would be the case.

Also, even though Wi-Fi radios in smart phones typically aren't as powerful as those in laptops, extensive use of Wi-Fi can drain a phone battery in a few hours. The best advice is to switch off Wi-Fi when you don't need it. If you use Wi-Fi daily, charge your mobile device every night.

Better, more satisfying apps

The best experience on a Wi-Fi cell phone is the high-speed access to the Internet. Although the data transmission speed can vary widely depending on the phone, the network, the wireless router and the distance between the device and the router, Wi-Fi technology is still usually faster than using cellular data networks. Cellular networks typically top out at about 700Kbit or 800Kbit/sec., while commercial hot spots, typically provide speeds of at least 1Mbit/sec.

One caveat with smart phones is that they have relatively little processing power in comparison with laptops, so they may not be be as fast or responsive. But processing power is increasing on smart phones, and this shouldn't be a problem in future years. But even with current technology, you'll find tasks such as e-mail access, including downloading large attachments, MP3 downloads, Web browsing and even watching mobile TV to be more satisfying via a Wi-Fi connection.

There's one other application that can become highly attractive on a Wi-Fi-enabled smart phone: voice-over-IP telephone calls. VoIP services such as Skype, which is available for Windows Mobile devices, or Fring, which runs on Symbian OS smart phones, are both free if you call other users of the same service. Even when calling users of ordinary land-line or cell phone numbers, this is a less expensive approach, which satisfies my inner miser. Skype and Fring charge a local call rate independent of the recipient's location. It works similarly the other way around as well. If I'm overseas, I connect my smart phone to a Wi-Fi hot spot, dial a VoIP call and talk to anyone at local rates.

Foot dragging

If Wi-Fi on a smart phone is such a useful technology, why isn't everyone doing it? To answer a question with a question: When you were shopping for your last phone, did the salesperson tell you about phones with Wi-Fi?

Undoubtedly not. It's difficult for carriers to wholeheartedly promote something that could take revenue from their traditional mobile voice and data services. As a result, many cellular operators are less than enthusiastic about Wi-Fi smart phones.

However, some cellular operators are getting the message. T-Mobile has introduced a service in a few markets that aims to combine the best of both worlds. The company has chosen Unlicensed Mobile Access technology to offer a service that keeps calls connected even when the phone moves outside T-Mobile's cellular network and onto a Wi-Fi network, seamlessly transferring the calls between the networks. A subscription to the service requires a dual-mode phone and a Wi-Fi access point installed at home.

At the moment, carriers are marketing a small number of Wi-Fi phones with ordinary subscription packages. For example, the T-Mobile Dash and Cingular 8525 are both high-end Windows Mobile devices with Wi-Fi and Global System for Mobile Communications connectivity.

Despite the limited selection of Wi-Fi-enabled phones available from carriers, major cell phone vendors have had devices in stores for a couple of years. For example, the HP iPaq 510, HTC S620, Motorola A910, Nokia N80, Samsung SGH-P200, Sony Ericsson P990i and Apple iPhone all feature (or in the case of iPhone, will feature) Wi-Fi. If nothing else, the highly-visible iPhone is likely to make many people aware of the high-speed connectivity and cost benefits of Wi-Fi.

The technical advantages and budget benefits of Wi-Fi are important, but the most satisfying thing for me is that I'm in control. I decide which services, applications and Web sites I access. I decide what type of connection is the best for my smart phone -- just like I decide which connection is the best for a particular task on my laptop.

For more than 20 years, a consulting and marketing career has taken Ari Hakkarainen across the world in high-tech business. In addition to having authored a book about smart phones, he is the mobile expert at Avec Mobile.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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