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Nextel Combines Cellular And Wireless LANs

Vendor introduces system designed to improve reception inside buildings.
A big selling point for wireless technology is its ability to liberate workers from their offices--take a cell phone and a notebook computer, and you can work from a park, coffee shop, or burger joint. But what about people chained to the desk, stuck behind thick walls and miles of wiring that interfere with cell phone and Wi-Fi signals? Nextel Communications Inc. addressed that issue Wednesday when it introduced a new in-building system that combines cellular and wireless LAN service.

Users of the system deploy access units from wireless hardware vendor RadioFrame Networks Inc. at regular points across their facility. The breadbox-sized devices contain slots for seven different radio blades, so they can be used to re-broadcast whatever signal a business needs, including Nextel's Direct Connect walkie-talkie calls, CDMA or GSM cellular, and 802.11b Wi-Fi.

The most immediate benefit of the system is no more dropped phone calls, says Nextel. "Anyone who doesn't have a really strong cell phone signal throughout their facility has a problem to fix," says Jon Pelson, senior director of custom network solutions at Nextel. Calls that don't get picked up and end up being sent to voice mail, or get cut off mid-stream, can lead to reduced productivity and lost sales, he says.

The system makes sense for Nextel customers, as it would let them extend useful tools such as walkie-talkie service across a building, says TeleChoice analyst Pat Hurley. But he's not sure it's as good an investment for businesses using other cellular carriers, who have to pay for each minute of cellular service. "I would think that an enterprise would want to minimize the use of cellular," he says.

The system also can help save money on new hardware. Businesses can improve their cellular coverage and at the same time deploy a wireless LAN, reducing deployment costs and keeping wireless infrastructure simple, Pelson says.

The cost of the system varies widely according to the details of each deployment. Pelson says Nextel also is cutting deals with some of its cellular customers, including deploying the system in return for orders for more handsets or service.