Wi-Fi Direct Seen as Way to Alleviate Network Congestion

For consumers concerned about wireless network congestion, hope may be at hand. That's the message from a group of tech companies backing wireless fidelity, or Wi-Fi, a way to get online without having to go through a traditional mobile-phone network. The Wi-Fi Alliance, an industry group that includes Intel (INTC), Marvell Technology Group (MRVL), and dozens of other electronics companies, was at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to tout a new technology called Wi-Fi Direct as a way to relieve bottlenecks in wireless networks caused by increased use of mobile devices to access the Internet. Wi-Fi, available in computers and other electronics for years, lets users get onto the Internet when they're near a Wi-Fi-enabled router, in a so-called hotspot. Users of an Apple (AAPL) iPod touch, for instance, can get online without having to be on a wireless plan. Yet Wi-Fi has limits—such as when a user is out of the hotspot's range. What's more, the more people connected to a hotspot, whether it's in a home or a local Starbucks (SBUX), the slower the Wi-Fi connection can become. Those drawbacks have led Intel and other companies to develop standards for Wi-Fi Direct, which lets devices wirelessly connect to one another, bypassing not only a wireless network but the Wi-Fi hotspot, as well. A single device that supports the new technology can act as a hub for other Wi-Fi devices, letting them freely transfer video, digital music, and photos between them. "It's a huge breakthrough that will create a paradigm shift in consumer electronics," Kelly Davis-Felner, marketing director for the group, says in an interview. The Wi-Fi Alliance approved standards for Wi-Fi Direct in December. Strained Mobile-Phone NetworksConsumer electronics makers plan to deliver the first Wi-Fi Direct devices by June. Software updates for the installed base of Wi-Fi devices, including cell phones, may be available sooner. For years, wireless carriers such as Sprint (S) and Verizon Wireless, owned by Verizon Communications (VZ) and Vodafone Group (VOD), had misgivings about Wi-Fi, concerned that its rising popularity might slow demand for their own wireless technologies. Now, Wi-Fi may represent a salve for carriers whose networks have become taxed by the surging use of smartphones, such as Apple's iPhone and those based on Google's (GOOG) Android operating system, that function as mini computers and give users access to all manner of bandwidth-hogging games, tools, and features. Researcher IDC predicts that more than 1 billion mobile devices will be sold and used to access the Internet in 2010. Wi-Fi Direct isn't the first technology aimed at helping electronics directly connect with each other. On Jan. 6, Sony (SNE) unveiled new digital cameras and laptop computers that use a very near-range technology called TransferJet to share photos. The following day, Intel CEO Paul Otellini outlined details of technology that would let computers and other consumer electronics more easily transmit video and other content, without having to use cables. Recently introduced laptops from Lenovo, Dell (DELL), and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) will use another tool from Intel, known as My Wi-Fi, that lets a host PC share its wireless connection with as many as eight nearby devices. For now, Wi-Fi Direct may have the best chance of being widely adopted because many consumers already are familiar with technology Intel helped popularize with its Centrino marketing campaign in 2003.

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