T-Mobile’s Wi-Fi/Cellular Service Expanding This Summer

The Wall Street Journal announced this morning that T-Mobile USA will soon be launching the nationwide rollout of its fixed/mobile convergence solution, which lets its cellular (GSM) customers also make calls over Wi-Fi connections, using dual-mode phones supporting both. Calls made on one network continue even as the user moves onto the other.

T-Mobile has not announced it directly, and did not respond when asked about it. Kineto Wireless, the company that helped develop (and heavily promotes) the UMA technology powering the service, declined to comment aside from saying that T-Mobile’s hotspots in other cities outside Seattle definitely support the phones.

The service has been in trials in Washington state since September of 2006. It’s offered now under the name Hotspot@Home. Currently, users pay $20 extra a month to T-Mobile (on top of $40 per month or more for voice service) for unlimited use of the phone in their home, at T-Mobile hotspot, or (in theory) over any Wi-Fi-based connection to the Internet (though the “any Wi-Fi” theory is not confirmed). $5 adds another family member. Users can skip the extra fees and just use the existing minutes on their account, whether on a Wi-Fi or cellular connection.

Early technical problems with the service included issues with the hand-off of calls between networks.

Phones for Hotspot@Home, supporting both Wi-Fi and GSM cellular, are made by Nokia and Samsung. T-Mobile may also offer customers a wireless router that will work with the phones to further increase the battery life — Wi-Fi is a notorious battery drainer, even when a device isn’t in active use, something many Wi-Fi handset makers are working on. Currently, Hotspot@Home customers can use a home router of any kind.

T-Mobile, which is owned by Deutsche Telekom , now has 8,000 hotspots in the U.S., including those found in Starbucks and Borders Books. The company has 25 million phone subscribers, and is in the process of upgrading its cellular network to support 3G wireless broadband.  Deutsche Telekom canceled a similar service through its T-One subsidiary in Germany, but other carriers, like BT and Orange, have launched fixed/mobile convergence (F/MC) networks in Europe.

Look for Hotspot@Home to go nationwide in June.

While another big-name phone coming this summer does have integrated Wi-Fi — Apple’s iPhone, of course — that phone won’t support UMA-style call hand-off from GSM to Wi-Fi. That’s because it will only work with AT&T/Cingular’s network, which doesn’t support any kind of F/MC to date. No VoIP option for the Wi-Fi has been announced — AT&T has yet to announce any pricing plans for the iPhone at all. It’s also due out in June.

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