Review: HotSpot@Home means the emergence of convergence

Capable of automatic handoffs between cellular and VoIP

There are cell phones, which are nearly ubiquitous these days, and there are landline phones, which most of us have in our homes. There's been a lot of talk about converging both types of service so people will need only one phone and one phone number, but that hasn't happened -- until now.

T-Mobile's HotSpot@Home service, which the cellular operator just made available in all its service areas, is probably the first converged mobile/fixed service available to consumers throughout the U.S. It enables you to use one phone to make both cellular calls when you're mobile and Wi-Fi-based voice-over-IP calls when you're stationary.

Better still, it transfers calls seamlessly between the two types of network so that if you walk out of range of one network, the call can continue without interruption on the other network.

Getting started

T-Mobile gives you two phone choices if for its HotSpot@Home service: the Nokia 6086 and the Samsung t409. The Nokia has music capability and is an international phone. The Samsung will give up to eight days of standby time vs. Nokia's five.

Once you pick your phone, you must add a service plan and possibly some additional hardware. T-Mobile will happily sell you a wireless router with a T-Mobile brand on it that, it turns out, will be from either Linksys or D-Link. However, you don't need one of T-Mobile's routers if you already have one. There's only one small difference: setting up security. If your router is password-protected, you'll have to enter the password on the phone before it can connect. With one of T-Mobile's routers, you simply press a button.

All told, you can leave the T-Mobile online store with a phone, a plan, HotSpot@Home service and a router, having shelled out just about $100 immediately for the hardware. In addition, you'll pay a one-time $35 activation fee and as little as $50 per month thereafter, depending on which plan you choose and current incentives.

Connecting to Wi-Fi

With this system, there are cellular calls, Wi-Fi calls and calls that switch from one to the other when you walk out of range of one network and into range of the other. Not surprisingly, cellular calls operated precisely as expected.

We encountered absolutely no problems making Wi-Fi calls -- as long as we could connect. This system doesn't miraculously cure Wi-Fi dead spots in the home, of course. Usually, a remedy simply means shifting position a bit to get out of the basement or to clear the two walls lined with metal kitchen appliances that stand between the phone and the router. Once such hurdles were cleared, sound quality was surprisingly clear and crisp.

You can also leave home and make free (except for the monthly plan price) Wi-Fi calls. T-Mobile provides hot spots for places like Starbucks and Borders book stores, and calls from those locations are available for free.

In addition, any Wi-Fi hot spot will work. The phone sorts through the networks it finds and gives preference to T-Mobile spots, followed by free access spots and then password-protected hot spots. You can accept the phone's determination of the best option or rummage through the list of available hot spots, choosing your own, then setting up whatever parameters might be required, including passwords. If you then save the configuration to your group of favorite hot spots, your phone will pick it up automatically the next time.

Truly seamless transfers

If you walk out of Starbucks, your house or any other place in which you were in the midst of a Wi-Fi call, the system will switch you seamlessly over to T-Mobile's cellular network, provided, of course, that the area is serviced by the operator. Although the word seamlessly gets thrown around quite a bit, in this case it's spot-on accurate. You won't be able to tell when the handoff occurs, whether you're entering or leaving a Wi-Fi zone.

Overall, we found the T-Mobile HotSpot@Home system more than satisfactory, and not just for the convenience (and lower cost) of Wi-Fi calls compared with calls placed from land lines. The quality of the audio was better than we experienced through our Sprint VoIP service. And while T-Mobile suffered from the same dead zones as Sprint Nextel, it held on to a quality connection longer and then simply dropped the call completely thereafter, rather than forcing us to endure the ubiquitous "You still there?" inquiries as the conversation wavered in and out.

So, can you toss out your landline phones? For some, the answer will be a clear yes, while for others, it may not yet be time. Perhaps the biggest potential problem with this system relates to 911 emergency calls. Your HotSpot 911 call will be routed to the proper authorities based on the location of the cell tower (either T-Mobile's or someone else's), the public IP address of the call, the Media Access Control address of the wireless router, or your registered home emergency address.

Obviously, the latter is the best way to go, and T-Mobile goes to great pains to persuade you to register your address. In fact, in its accompanying material, T-Mobile says, "If you try to use your T-Mobile HotSpot Phone on the Wi-Fi network and we do not have a 911 address on file, you may be blocked from using the service until the address is provided."

Emergencies aside, Ma Bell hasn't failed to provide us with a dialtone in decades. And cellular and Wi-Fi connections are still more fragile than traditional landline connections, despite the generally excellent results in our tests.

Still, this system is impressive and is as close as we can get, under present conditions, to full wireless phone freedom.

Bill O'Brien has written a half-dozen books on computers and technology. He has also written articles on topics ranging from Apple computers and PCs to Linux and commentary on IT hardware decisions.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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