Imagine that, as you were walking around the city or driving on the highway, your cellphone didn't automatically connect to a wireless network. Instead, you had to continually look up the nearest cell tower and log into each one as you do with a Wi-Fi hotspot.
Now imagine it the other way around: Your cellphone — or tablet — would automatically log into Wi-Fi hotspots as it does with cell towers. That's the goal of a new technology called Wi-Fi roaming that many of the biggest tech firms are developing.
Why hop among Wi-Fi hotspots when your phone has a cellular connection? Many people already switch to Wi-Fi when they can — sometimes to get a faster or more reliable connection or to save on pricey cellphone data charges. In fact, smartphone owners already use Wi-Fi more than cellular service to connect to the Internet, according to a recent study by research firm NPD Connected Intelligence. And in North America, smartphones already outnumber laptops in connecting to Wi-Fi hotspots, according to a November study by analyst firm Informa. The study was done for the Wireless Broadband Alliance, the industry group pushing the new tech.
You shouldn't expect Wi-Fi hopping tomorrow, but it's starting to look more likely for a future rollout. In February, several major companies, including AT&T, LG and Cisco finished a successful test of the technology. And today (March 20), the GSMA, a group of about 800 wireless companies such as AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon signed on to help develop Wi-Fi roaming. The Wireless Broadband Alliance plans to nail down the tech standards this year, and it expects the first crop of roaming-capable hotspots to start rolling out in 2012. But this year will still be a testing period. Services that you can use will come in the following years.
If Wi-Fi roaming does arrive, it probably won't allow you to hop from one free network to the next. Wireless companies are investing a lot in the technology, and there will probably be some charge for the service. How much it will cost — and whether it ultimately allows you to save money on cellphone data plans — is still up in the air.