T-Mobile Wi-Fi/Cell Phones Go Nationwide

Amid all the iPhone hype this week, T-Mobile USA (part of Deutsche Telekom ) has something to say as well: mobile phones don’t have to break the bank, when you can make calls over both cell towers and Wi-Fi routers — and, delivering on a promise made years ago, those calls won’t be dropped as you switch between networks. Homes with poor cell coverage can still make calls if Wi-Fi access is made available.

That’s the gist of the company’s Hotspot @Home service, which is going nationwide today after several months of trials in the Seattle area. With this service and a dual-mode phone supporting both T-Mobile’s GSM/GPRS/EDGE network and Wi-Fi, users can make unlimited calls by adding $10 a month, or $20 a month for up to five lines on a family plan, to an existing T-Mobile phone account. The “unlimited” part only includes the VoIP calls made via Wi-Fi, of course – except if the call started on the Wi-Fi side. If the call then roams to the cell network, it remains unmetered.

Investor research firm ThinkEquity calls this fixed/mobile convergence (F/MC) launch by T-Mobile “the most important architectural shift in cell phone technology since the introduction of digital GSM in 1992.”

To launch the service, phones are needed, and two vendors announced new handsets to support it today, the Nokia 6086 and the Samsung SGH-t409. Both will retail through T-Mobile for $50 with a two-year contract. In addition to Wi-Fi and GSM, each supports Bluetooth (for headsets only) and has a built-in camera (but you can’t connect to a computer to send the pictures — you need a USB cable, which is not included). The Nokia phone records video and takes microSD cards for expansion.

Users are not limited to Wi-Fi calls on their home networks. The phones will work with any open Wi-Fi connection, as well as the T-Mobile HotSpot network of 8,500 locations in the U.S. Calls made at these locations won’t cost anything. T-Mobile will also be selling home wireless routers from Linksys and D-Link that it says are optimized for the service by supporting the WMM standard, part of 802.11e with a proprietary method for setting up a secure link. The routers will be free after a mail-in rebate. T-Mobile apparently won’t guarantee call quality with other routers, nor at non-T-Mobile hotspots. T-Mobile hotspots all have full T-1 lines for backhaul to the Internet, while typical public hotspots with open access are likely only to have DSL or cable connections in the background.

The Hotspot @Home network is powered by Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) technology, which enables seamless hand-off from Wi-Fi to cellular and back. The same tech powers networks overseas run by BT in the UK and Orange in France.

The iPhone, while carrying Wi-Fi, will not support this kind of hand-off, as its exclusive carrier, AT&T, doesn’t use it. Wi-Fi on the iPhone will likely be used for data only, unless Apple introduces a VoIP application in the future – which is unlikely, since AT&T won’t want iPhone users to avoid using its voice network. Glenn Fleishman of Wi-Fi Networking News notes that “T-Mobile is focused entirely on voice here; Apple, on a broad ‘digital life’ experience that includes voice, Internet access, and media, with no network integration among the three.”

The Hotspot @Home service and the Nokia and Samsung handsets can be purchased at T-Mobile retail stories or online.

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