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Wi-Fi Phones

What if you could make free or cheap calls from hotspots in many coffee shops and airports and from wireless networks in homes?

Wi-Fi not only has the potential to offer better voice quality than traditional cellular service, but it also opens the door to videoconferencing and other data services on mobile devices. Cellphone users are now often limited to the services offered by their carriers, but Wi-Fi phones could have access to a wider range of offerings on the Internet, in some cases at faster transmission speeds than on the carriers’ networks. Netgear‘s Wi-Fi Phone is the world’s first wireless Internet phone that can make free calls using the Internet phone service Skype to other Skype users anywhere in the world, anytime you have Wi-Fi access, without a PC.

The Philips VOIP841 acts as a standard land-line telephone but also can make calls using Skype The phone has two jacks, one for a regular telephone line and another for an Ethernet cable. The wireless handset uses Philips DECT technology to improve call clarity. To make an Internet call, the caller scrolls through a list of Skype contacts (the phone holds up to 500) and dials away. The call is routed over the Internet without the need to involve a computer. The handset battery lasts for up to 12 hours of talk time and about 120 hours when not in use. Multiple base stations or handsets can be added to the system, allowing everyone in the house to get on and make calls. The phone has separate rings for land-line calls and Skype calls, so you'll know which network is calling.

The radio signals sent from standard mobile phones connect to tens of thousands of cell sites on towers or attached to buildings, billboards and other structures. These cells have an average range of two miles, allowing them to blanket much of the country.

Wi-Fi hotspots have a much more limited range, usually no more than 800 feet. Unlike the cellphone towers, which are operated by the carriers, the hotspots tend to be controlled by individuals or smaller companies, and are not coordinated or organized into a larger network.

Wi-Fi networks operate over unlicensed radio spectrum. This spectrum is essentially public space, which means that anyone can make use of it, but it also means that the frequencies can be congested, potentially causing interference and dropped calls.

By contrast, the major cellphone carriers paid billions of dollars to the federal government for the right to use their slices of the radio spectrum. They can control who is on their networks, maintain quality standards and limit overcrowding. But the spectrum fees introduce a layer of costs that Wi-Fi calls are not burdened with.

The Cell Phone Tower Search is a listing of US towers by city using a Google maps API. All wireless operators in the United States must file with the FCC. The FCC posts and updates a database of tower application records. This database can be downloaded. These records will not tell you if the sites are currently active or what type of technology they use (GSM, CDMA, etc.)

Of course, as many laptop users have discovered, Wi-Fi Internet access is not always something you pay for. Sometimes it is something you just find, as can be the case when people deliberately or unintentionally leave access points open and unsecured. The phones that work with Skype, and most likely others, will turn the free access point in a neighborhood café — or a neighbor’s house — into a miniature provider of phone service.

The Wi-Fi in Your Handset

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Revised: 09/02/2008