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« Double-Blind Mobile Phone Study, For Instance | Main | UWB Heads to Handsets with Staccato, SK Telecom Partnership »

December 13, 2006

Review of T-Mobile's Converged Cell/Wi-Fi Service

In Thursday's New York Times, you can read my experience with HotSpot@Home: T-Mobile's converged (unlicensed mobile access or UMA) cellular and Wi-Fi calling plan and hardware is available in only Washington state at this point. I tested the service for two weeks, and was quite impressed with overall quality, but handoffs between cell and Wi-Fi networks needs work. T-Mobile won't be rolling this service out more broadly until the hiccups have been scared out of it. But for someone who needs mobility, the fixed cost of Wi-Fi calling, and who likes one of the two available phones, it's a solid offering.

At $20 per month for unlimited calls within the US, T-Mobile can compete with Vonage on pure cost, as Vonage is $25 per month. Skype's decision today to launch $30 per year unlimited calls within the US (and Canada), or less than $3 per month, puts another spanner in comparing plans.

But let's be frank. T-Mobile is a phone company, and they know how to run a network. The intent with HotSpot@Home isn't to make a super-generic Wi-Fi offering. Rather, it's a way to lower customer costs at the same time as they increase loyalty. Their UMA offering is an integrated, single-bill package that's a double-play (fixed location, as in the home, and mobile).

Vonage still has a lot of stutters--in their business and in their service--and the lack of a mobile component means you're managing multiple phone numbers and devices. Would I drop a landline for Vonage? Hardly. And I can't drop a mobile line, so it doesn't buy me anything there.

Skype can't provide reliable service yet--it's not anywhere near telecom quality on average, although individual calls can be fantastic. I've made hundreds of hours of calls on Skype's network this year, and despite having a 3 Mbps/768 Kbps connection at my office, the call quality and other parameters for Skype-to-Skype and SkypeIn/Out calling is all over the fence. It's unacceptable to rely on for business calling without accepting that fact. I love, for instance, when calls go out of sync so there's a several-second offset between myself and the other party.

Now Skype is starting to move into the double play by pushing Wi-Fi only phones, such as those from major Wi-Fi equipment makers. Belkin's introduction of a Skype phone that can place calls using Boingo Wireless's puts them closer to challenging cellular operators. And as Wi-Fi expands to broader coverage areas, perhaps Wi-Fi will be an alternative to mobile calling for some users. But I don't buy it. Voice is very challenging, and Skype is starting already with an uneven service.

I'm watching T-Mobile HotSpot@Home very carefully, because they are the largest carrier in the world to push this as a service that they apparently plan to extend to their entire market. Their decisions in response to real-world performance will affect cellular customers and carriers in the US and internationally, and will also affect how VoIP develops in metro-scale Wi-Fi networks.

Update: British Telecom (BT) just launched their UMA service for SMBs (small-to-medium-sized businesses) in the UK. They're offering the Nokia 6136 and the Motorola A910 handsets; the Samsung P200 will be added next month. They're not offering unlimited calling for a flat rate, but the tariffs for Wi-Fi home/office/OpenZone calls are quite low: 5 pence (p) or less than US$.10 for up to 60 minutes to a UK landline; 15p to BT mobiles; 25p to other UK mobiles. Cellular rates are 25p maximum to all numbers for calls up to 60 minutes.


I used this service during the beta. I found that it worked fairly well and was continually getting better at handoffs. In places (like my home) in which I have bad cell signal, it was refreshing to be able to use my phone and have crystal, clear sound quality.

It is a great idea as you say for customer loyalty. I suppose that WiFi calls mean VoIP. If more and more our cellphones have WiFi capabilities and mobile operators offer flat internet connections, then only the inability of companies like Skype to offer a quality service will prevent them from being a great alternative. Mobile Operators need to lock their customers offering VoIP before we feel the need to do it thanks to offers like Skype.

Here at Devicescape we've been watching UMA carefully, and we believe that when combined with something like our recently announced hotspot login agent, these dual mode phones will be very appealing to operators as a way to both extend their network coverage, especially indoors, and to offload some bandwidth from the cellular spectrum.

The key for consumers though is having the phones switch seamlessly, and be able to use as many networks as possible (much like GSM phones do
today with the various roaming agreements between operators).

As an alternative to UMA, it might be interesting to see one of the MVNO providers include Wi-Fi and Skype into their handsets. Use the cellphone when you're not in a hotspot, but when you step into range of a hotspot, the phone automatically logs in and connects you to the Skype network as well.

Glenn, what were your findings as to battery life? Specifically, how much talk-time did you have in WiFi mode? Also, did you get a chance to test an AP with Power Save vs. a standard one?

[Editor's note: I didn't do extensive, stop-watch battery life testing, but the Nokia did seem to last a few hours of talking and a few days on standby. They claim 5.5 hours in the optimal circumstances--with WMM Power Save--which should mean about 3 to 4 hours in sub-optimal cases, which seems very reasonable based on my testing.

I did test with the D-Link AP that had Power Save enabled, but didn't do enough testing to get a sense of battery life. My suspicion is that to test battery life, you'd need to spend a couple of weeks charging overnight, then placing calls to random number generators to see what happens. And it's possible T-Mobile wouldn't allow 3 or 4 hour calls every day for a couple of weeks on this service without getting suspicious!--gf]