T-Mobile launches nationwide converged Wi-Fi, cell service

Users can make calls over Wi-Fi and at T-Mobile hot spots

SEATTLE -- T-Mobile USA Inc. launched its converged Wi-Fi and cellular service nationwide today, following the introduction of the service late last year in Seattle.

The service lets users of a special mobile phone make calls over Wi-Fi from their homes as well as T-Mobile hot spots. Users can also make regular cell phone calls when out of range of a hot spot. Calls hand off between the two networks if a user moves from his home, for example, beyond the range of their Wi-Fi network.

T-Mobile has been working on the service for around four years, said Mike Selman, T-Mobile director of marketing. The company began the project after asking customers what would make them give up their landline phones and rely only on their mobile phone. The answer they most commonly gave was that the phone had to work better in their home, he said.

Because cellular networks often don't work as well indoors as outside, T-Mobile is using Wi-Fi to provide better service to customers in their homes.

For now, customers can choose from a Nokia or Samsung phone. Each costs $50 with a two-year contract. Customers can use any access point, but T-Mobile encourages them to use either the D-Link or Linksys routers it offers. The access points, which are free after a mail-in rebate, come loaded with software that gives voice calls priority, helping ensure better quality.

T-Mobile customers must have a cellular plan of $39.99 or more in order to sign up, and then must pay an additional $19.99 per month for unlimited local and long-distance calls from the hotspots. A family plan that includes up to five lines costs $29.99 per month.

T-Mobile is also offering an introductory rate that doesn't expire. Customers who sign up while the offer is valid will pay $9.99 for one line and $19.99 for up to five.

Users may also choose to have their Wi-Fi minutes count the same as their cellular minutes under a regular plan, and not pay the additional monthly fee.

If a cellular and Wi-Fi network are both in range, the phones default to the lower-cost Wi-Fi network. Also, when users move from one network to the next, the call is billed based on which network started the call. For example, if a user begins a call on the cellular network and then walks into his home, even if the call is transferred to the Wi-Fi network, the entire call will count against the cellular voice plan.

Users can make phone calls from any of T-Mobile's 8,500 hotspots across the country, located in Starbucks coffee shops and other locations. The phone automatically connects and authenticates at the T-Mobile hot spots.

In many cases, customers can also use other hot spots. If the hot spot has no security, a user can connect to it and make calls. However, if a hot spot employs a browser redirect page that requires a user to agree to terms, the user won't be able to connect. That's because the available phones can't display HTML Web pages.

Users can also type in a password to connect to a secured Wi-Fi network.

Thomas Hagan, a T-Mobile customer in Midway, Ga., tried the service for four weeks and said he had no trouble using the phone in hotels, a local bookstore and his corporate Wi-Fi network.

He found it easy to set up the router in his home and connect to the phone to it. Overall, he was impressed with the call quality over the Wi-Fi network and didn't have any problems with calls dropping when transferred between the cellular and Wi-Fi networks.

"The phone was a little larger than my existing phone, so that took a little getting used to," Hagan said. Customers can only choose from two devices and they're both low-end flip phones with limited functionality.

T-Mobile relies on technology called Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) to offer the service. On June 18, Cincinnati Bell Inc. launched a similar UMA service in its region. Operators including Orange SA in Europe have also launched the converged services.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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