By JOHN MARKOFF
SAN FRANCISCO, July 15 ‹ Several leading computer and telecommunications companies are discussing the joint creation of a wireless data network that would make it possible for users of hand-held and portable computers to have access to the Internet at high speeds nationwide.
The Intel Corporation, I.B.M., AT&T Wireless and several other wireless and Internet service providers including Verizon Communications and Cingular are exploring the creation of a company to deploy a network based on the increasingly popular 802.11 wireless data standard, known as WiFi, according to several people close to the talks.
The discussions, which are code-named Project Rainbow and have been going on for the last eight months, envision a nationwide service that would provide on-the-go professionals and other Web surfers a unified way to reach the Internet from a wide range of "hot spots" like airports and other public places. It is not intended to supply broadband connections to customers' homes, an executive involved in the discussions said.
Intel has been a leading force in the project, according to several industry executives. The company, which established a communications division 18 months ago, has said publicly that it plans to make 802.11 a standard capability of all of its microprocessors offered for mobile computing beginning next January.
The company has also said that it will bring the wireless data standard to 20 million portable computers in 2003 and an additional 40 million portable and desktop computers the following year. In addition to Intel, I.B.M.'s Global Services Division, which is one of the leaders in the deployment of 802.11 wireless access points, would be involved in establishing the actual wireless access points and developing the technology to link the network together nationally.
Officials of Intel and I.B.M. refused to comment on the planned project, but an industry executive who is involved in it said the companies would decide in several months whether there is a workable business model.
There have already been a number of ad hoc efforts and several national start-ups trying to lash the hodgepodge of 802.11 networks together into a usable national network. Companies like Boingo Wireless and Joltage Networks are trying to sell services that would let a computer user sign up once and use wireless access points around the country.
But the companies involved in the talks anticipate a more ambitious effort based on building a new wireless communications infrastructure that would also tie in the nation's cellular carriers, offering a seamless transition from low-speed cellular data standards to 802.11.
"There are a lot of moving parts that need to be tied together," said Richard Miller, a wireless data industry consultant at Breo Ventures in Palo Alto, Calif. "The big issue in my mind is that will they have a nice smooth service that can hand over the customer from wide area to local area."
Such a service would require a nationwide mechanism that would support multiple data standards and could automate billing moving between high-speed and low-speed networks, he said.
Other longtime industry analysts warned that the challenge in such a wireless data service would be in getting all of the different aspects right from the consumer's perspective.
"I think it could jump-start the industry if all the components are in place," said Alan Reiter, publisher of Wireless Internet and Mobile Computing, a wireless data newsletter and consulting firm in Chevy Chase, Md. "That has been the problem with wireless: everything has to work well or consumers will reject it. You need the right pricing, the right devices and right locations."
The rapid emergence of the 802.11 standard has been a remarkable phenomenon that has so far been unplanned and moved forward largely without the backing of major corporate service providers. About 7 million wireless cards were sold last year, a number the technology market research firm IDC expects to grow to 25 million by 2005.
Part of the challenge is that 802.11 networks were not originally intended to be used in the way that the Project Rainbow discussions now envision. Originally the technology was conceived as a replacement for wired Ethernet office networks over ranges of several hundred feet.
The standard, however, has quickly gained a large following of small companies and hobbyists who have extended it to cover "hot spots" in urban neighborhoods.
The new wireless network would be welcomed by millions of computer users, but it might find a less enthusiastic audience among cellular carriers, who have been hoping that wireless data would be a crucial component in next-generation networks which are starting to be deployed.
It might also not be greeted warmly by current providers of high-speed D.S.L. and Internet cable data service, who are worried about competition in delivering data connections to homes and businesses.
There are also a number of industry executives and technical experts who say that the question of wireless data standards is still very much up for grabs.
For example, the Motorola Corporation has not been a major player in the 802.11 marketplace. In June the company introduced a competing wireless data technology called Canopy, which is intended to permit service providers a competitive way to transmit high-speed Internet data over ranges of up to 10,000 feet.