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Wi-Fi Phone Buyer's Guide

The days of trying to make an important call from the bowels of a data center, only to find that your cell phone doesn't have a signal, may soon be coming to an end. New services and devices designed to extend the reach and reduce the cost of traditional cell phone service are beginning to reach the market, and are certain to change the industry's landscape.

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service providers Skype and Vonage have each recently partnered with hardware manufacturers to release cell-like phones that can use their services via Wi-Fi networks.

Not to be left behind, traditional cell carriers are launching dual-mode phones and services that run over the cellular networks, but switch to cheaper (for carriers), faster (for customers) Wi-Fi networks when one is available. T-Mobile launched a trial of this type of service, dubbed HotSpot@Home, in October 2006. Although the service is currently only available in Washington state, it's likely to be extended to other cities in 2007.

But before we get in too deep, let's get familiar with the technology and some terminology.

Wi-Fi phone services can be divided broadly into two categories: mobile phones that use a wireless network to connect to a VoIP service such as Skype or Vonage, and dual-mode phones that have the capability to run over both wireless networks and a cellular network. The goal of both of these approaches is the Holy Grail of fixed mobile convergence, which brings mobile and landline services together into a single device.

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