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As smartphones tend to get more popular, cellular phones featuring Wi-Fi support will naturally also get increase its shipments since wireless local network support is now a must-have feature of almost any advanced phone. Early this year it was predicted that shipments of Wi-Fi-enabled phones would double between 2008 and 2010. Now analysts from ABI predict that despite of economic recession, the similar pattern will hold true – or even accelerate – for the period 2009-2011.

“Wi-Fi’s penetration into handsets has more momentum than the bad economy. It has become a must-have item much as Bluetooth did earlier. But just having Wi-Fi in the handset isn’t enough. You have to have a reason for customers to use it. Until now it has been predominantly for data use, with voice struggling to find its niche,” said ABI Research analyst Michael Morgan.

This year is on track to see 144 million Wi-Fi-enabled handsets shipped, with forecasts for 2011 at just over 300 million, according to ABI.

However mobile operators’ attitudes to Wi-Fi have been changing. At first many feared that Wi-Fi would take traffic off their networks, resulting in lost revenue. Now they are starting to realize that it may instead mean an increase in available network capacity. How operators view Wi-Fi is largely a function of their particular circumstance.

“Verizon has not enthusiastically embraced Wi-Fi in its handsets, while AT&T has. AT&T was thrown into the pool by the iPhone. Previously people did access data, but the iPhone led people to use Wi-Fi to a degree never seen before. Traditionally cautious Verizon hasn’t been thrown into that situation yet, but they are warming up to Wi-Fi,” said Mr. Morgan.

Wi-Fi’s benefits depend on a carrier’s circumstances too. Consider T-Mobile: a wireless carrier that owns no landline assets. It used Wi-Fi (via ‘Hotspot at Home’ access points) to deliver an improved in-home service that it couldn’t achieve before. In contrast, AT&T does have landline assets. Here Wi-Fi’s benefit is to take a load off AT&T’s cellular network.

“The picture may be unique to each carrier, but in the end Wi-Fi can offer most operators those two key benefits: extended reach and/or network load reduction,” concluded the analyst.

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