Even though the number of hotspots offering public access to wireless broadband networks continues to rise sharply, executives from major vendors and mobile operators view the technology as playing a much larger role in the home and office.

Speaking Wednesday, at the Telecom World 2003 conference and exhibition in Geneva, Irwin Jacobs, CEO of Qualcomm, played down the impact of WLANs on emerging new 3G (third generation) mobile broadband networks.

Mobile operators will pursue a "collaborative" approach, using public WLANs to extend high-speed mobile data services in areas where they lack coverage, Jacobs said in a forum discussion. Several mobile operators have already signaled their intent to provide bundled 3G and WLAN services, he said.

As for "stand-alone" hotspots, not linked to a mobile operator or other larger service provider, Jacobs said he doesn't see "a very good business case". WLAN technology, based on the 802.11 standard will be deployed mostly in homes and campus networks, he said.

In the same forum, Jean-Pierre Bienaimé, chairman of the Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS) Forum, called public WLAN service a "niche" market. The UMTS is an association mostly representing the interests of 3G technology vendors.

Earlier in the week, Arun Sarin, chief executive officer of Vodafone, referred to WLAN technology as "complementary" to 3G, pointing out that the company intends to offer PC cards and other terminals that bundle not only 3G and WLAN but also "2.5" technology, based on GPRS (General Packet Radio Service).

Meanwhile, hotspots in a wide variety of locations, from hotels and train stations to restaurants and bars, continue to sprout up around the world, according to Brian Grimm, a spokesman for the Wi-Fi Alliance, which certifies equipment based on the 802.11 standard. The group's Wi-Fi Zone programme, which provides an online directory of hotspots operating with certified equipment, has more than 6,000 public access service locations.