A Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) phone refers to a telephonic device that has the ability to connect to the home or office wireless network using the local router. Cafés, airports and many municipalities also offer free WLAN access or hotspots. Where available, one can use a WLAN phone to surf the Web or check mail. A cell phone without WLAN capability typically offers Internet access through a cellular broadband service known as a Wireless Wide Area Network (WWAN). WWAN connections are more costly than WLAN, but have the advantage of providing mobile access limited only by cell plan coverage. A cell phone can feature both WLAN and WWAN chips.
WWAN or mobile broadband has a distinct and critical advantage over WLAN technology: WWAN provides Internet access on the go. Second generation (2G) technology has given way to 3G and 4G networks, with competition driving ever-evolving, even faster flavors. In some cases cellular broadband can meet or even exceed a WLAN for speed, though various factors come into play. Specific carriers and plans, cellphone hardware, regional mobile technology, weather and even network load all figure into mobile broadband performance.
The one constant of WWAN technology is that it is not free or cheap. The typical user buys Internet minutes along with his or her cell phone plan, adding to the overall cost of monthly cell service. Alternately, one can buy WWAN access on a pay-as-you-go-basis, starting with 24-hour increments. Once subscribed, it is possible to cruise the Internet while riding in a taxi, sitting in a park, or waiting at a client’s offices, providing the cellular carrier covers the area either directly or through roaming contracts.
The advantage of a WLAN phone is that one can optionally bypass expensive mobile broadband service, using free hotspots instead. At home, at the office, and when mobile access is not required, augmenting WWAN with WLAN can save money by keeping WWAN minutes at a minimum.
Those with an unlimited WWAN plan might still find a WLAN phone handy. For example, WLAN might be preferable in regions with older, slower mobile networks; where the carrier imposes roaming charges; or where there is no coverage at all. It can also happen that a cellular network gets overloaded regionally, as when a local disaster occurs or some other event causes many people to use their cell phones simultaneously. In such cases a WLAN phone will still allow the user to connect to the Internet through any local hotspot.