The Wi-Fi in Your Handset

By MATT RICHTEL The New York Times

What if, instead of burning up minutes on your cellphone plan, you could make free or cheap calls over the wireless networks that allow Internet access in many coffee shops, airports and homes?

New phones coming on the market will allow just that.

Instead of relying on standard cellphone networks, the phones will make use of the anarchic global patchwork of so-called Wi-Fi hotspots. Other models will be able to switch easily between the two modes.

The phones, while a potential money-saver for consumers, could cause big problems for cellphone companies. They have invested billions in their nationwide networks of cell towers, and they could find that customers are bypassing them in favor of Wi-Fi connections. The struggling Bell operating companies could also suffer if the new phones accelerate the trend toward cheap Internet-based calling, reducing the need for a standard phone line in homes with wireless networks.

The spottiness of wireless Internet coverage means that for now, the phones will be more of a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, standard cellphone service. But dozens of American cities and towns are either building or considering wide-area wireless networks that would allow Wi-Fi phones to connect and make free or cheap calls.

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Monty Solomon
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