NTT DoCoMo Inc. reportedly plans to put wireless LAN (WLAN) chips in its 3G FOMA devices by the second half of this year. The innovative Japanese operator will likely be the first to launch devices and services that offer access to both third-generation cellular communications and WLAN links.

The operator intends to install its own 802.11b WLAN access points -- it has been testing a WLAN service in Tokyo since April -- but says it may partner with other companies to facilitate roaming among the "hotspots." Japan's largest mobile operator is looking for ways to drive takeup of its wideband-CDMA-based FOMA (Freedom of Mobile Multimedia Access) service, which currently has a disappointing 90,000 or so subscribers, compared to the millions that have signed up for its i-mode wireless data service.

"Combining both FOMA and the wireless LAN would enhance the users' convenience," DoCoMo president and CEO, Teiji Tachikawa, was quoted as saying in Nikkei Electronics."The concrete method of combining them is to install both FOMA and wireless LAN functions in PC-card type devices."

This suggests that NTT DoCoMo is planning to, at least initially, put the WLAN chips in communications devices larger than standard mobile phones -- perhaps more like its mobile office devices, which resemble very small laptops with phone capabilities.

In fact, the plan currently raises as many questions as answers. "It's an interesting move," says Tim Farrar, principal consultant at Analysys Consulting Ltd. "Will people use it for connecting a laptop to a phone, or will NTT offer high-speed data services straight to the phone?"

He says that DoCoMo will probably offer more of what it promised with FOMA -- multimedia and video streaming -- as well as more business oriented services.

There is also the possibility that DoCoMo might use WLAN to plug the gaps in its current 3G service. As Unstrung has said before, FOMA does not work well inside buildings (see Commentary: Mind the Wireless Gap). So NTT could use WLAN to offer data coverage and possibly even voice services indoors (see Symbol Talks Up Voice Over 802.11).

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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