At the annual Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, AT&T executive Andy Geisse reportedly stated that Wi-Fi will soon be integrated with mobile carrier networks. The theory is that wireless carriers could switch users back and forth between mobile and Wi-Fi signals to relieve network congestion and keep customers connected. Operators have been talking about Wi-Fi offload for years now, but Geisse's statement goes a step further by suggesting that carriers are working on making seamless network handoffs a reality in the not-to-distant future.
It's already standard practice for smartphones to switch to a mobile broadband network when Wi-Fi isn't available. However, the switch isn't seamless. In the moment when the phone disconnects from Wi-Fi and then picks up a mobile signal, there's a hiccup or interruption in phone activity. Right now that means you lose access to your streaming music service, or your web browser refuses to load a new page until the connection is re-established. When mobile carriers move to IP-based phone calls, however, that would mean dropping a call while your phone tries to pick up a new signal.
On the Wi-Fi side, we've already heard about work being done to allow roaming between different wireless networks. But according to the Wi-Fi Network Alliance, the new Passpoint standard for Wi-Fi roaming isn't at a level where it could pass off a phone call between networks without interruption. Geisse, on the other hand, is saying that with Wi-Fi integrated into mobile carrier services, consumers won't even be able to tell when a regular voice call becomes a voice-over-IP call using a Wi-Fi network.
Mobile carriers are certainly anxious to supplement their networks with Wi-Fi, but whether they've solved the latency issues involved in switching between Wi-Fi and cellular services remains to be seen. There's also the business issue of how mobile carriers make money from Wi-Fi. Cable operators haven't ruled out future usage-based billing for Wi-Fi access. You can bet traditional mobile operators haven't either.
Image credit: AT&T