Most of us know Wi-Fi as a way for laptops to get a high-speed wireless connection to the Web. But as Wi-Fi technology becomes more commonp, handset makers in US and Europe are beginning to include Wi-Fi chips in their phones, so the phones can jump back and forth between cellular and Wi-Fi networks. In some cases that mean faster surfing and you don’t have to use any costly minutes when you roll your regular voice calls onto a Wi-Fi network. Carriers will likely charge a monthly fee for such services though.  In US Over 80 cellphones now come with Wi-Fi access built in, from manufacturers such as Samsung, Nokia and Apple’s iPhone also includes a Wi-Fi chip.

These kind of hybrid phones have been in the news for a while (see this 2004 CNet Article) but only now they seem to be likely to become mainstream. Then there are the new type of Wi-Fi phones as the one from Skype and NetGear which lets you make VOIP calls over Wi-Fi.

Wall Street Jounral Reports:

To make these phones useful in the growing number of hot spots in US, manufacturers need to strike agreements with hot-spot operators like Boingo Wireless Inc., of Santa Monica, Calif., which oversees more than 60,000 access points globally, and T-Mobile USA, a part of Deutsche Telekom AG, which has 30,000. That will enable users to take their phone to a Starbucks, airport or hotel and keep using it without having to go through several logins.

“It’s one thing to bolt a Wi-Fi radio into a phone,” says Sky Dayton, a technology entrepreneur who founded both Helio and Boingo. “It’s another to make it a seamless experience for the user. That’s where the magic is.”

There are other high-speed options on the way. Cellular carriers are upgrading their existing networks to make them more powerful, and some are investing in entirely new ones to make significant jumps in speed. In the U.S., Sprint Nextel has said it plans to spend up to $3 billion to roll out a higher-speed network based on a technology called WiMax, making it available to 100 million Americans by the end of 2008. The company says the service should initially offer speeds of two megabits to four megabits per second — roughly twice as fast as Wi-Fi — at prices comparable to those of cable operators, which are usually around $50 per month.

In Asia, operators have similar plans. In South Korea, a technology similar to WiMax, known as WiBro, is taking hold. In Japan, DoCoMo is planning for an ambitious upgrade by 2010 — an ultra-high-speed wireless network that it says will allow download speeds of up to 100 megabits per second. That would put the network on par with the highest-end fiber-optic landline Internet connections.

For more info about WiFi phone sets see this review.