September 7, 2006 9:05 AM PDT

Switching from cell to Wi-Fi, seamlessly

T-Mobile USA, the fourth-largest mobile phone company in the United States, is preparing to launch a service this month that will allow people talking on their cell phones to seamlessly switch between T-mobile's cellular network and their home Wi-Fi networks.

T-Mobile's new service, which will be the first of its kind in the United States, will be a test case for other operators also looking to deploy similar services. Sprint Nextel, through its joint venture with four major cable companies, is also looking into developing a similar service. And Cingular is testing a service in its labs.

Carriers in Europe, such as Telecom Italia and Orange, have already said they will launch their services later this year, charging between 10 and 15 euros per month for unlimited calling from dual-mode Wi-Fi/cellular phones used in home networks. The business case for consumers in Europe is simple: The dual-mode services are much cheaper than current cell phone and landline rates.

In the United States, where voice minutes are sold in buckets, Wi-Fi/cellular services could be a harder sell. That said, there are some compelling benefits for U.S. consumers. For example, cell phone users will be able to conserve voice minutes while talking on the Wi-Fi network, which could allow them to reduce their usage plans and reduce phone bills. They'll also get access to a higher speed network that allows them to download mobile content, like Web pages, music and games, much faster than they can even from a 3G wireless network.

But analysts, such as Charles Golvin with Forrester Research, say that these services may not catch on with consumers until users see added functionality that they can't get on their regular cellular phones.

"Just like with the voice over IP movement, people will be interested in converged Wi-Fi/cellular services at first based on price," he said. "But eventually it will become more about features."

Tapping the advantages of IP
Specifically, Wi-Fi-based phone services will allow consumers access to a whole slew of IP-enabled features, such as receiving voice mail from a Web portal, or being able to see whether friends on their buddy lists are available for phone calls.

T-Mobile, which is using a standard technology developed for GSM networks called unlicensed mobile access, or UMA, is keeping details of its new service under wraps.

"T-Mobile is interested in the replacement or displacement of landline minutes," a spokeswoman said in an e-mail. "We believe the future will be about leveraging diverse forms of radio access technology for our customers and Unlicensed Mobile Access, we think, is one of the technologies that will help us continue to deliver on that promise.

But Kineto Wireless, one of the companies developing software to enable the service, said a commercial service is expected to launch this month in at least one major city. T-mobile has been testing the service for about a month in the Pacific Northwest, according to several blogs.

Using equipment supplied by T-Mobile, the initial Wi-Fi/cellular service will be limited to home-based Wi-Fi networks that use standard 802.11 Wi-Fi routers from companies such as D-Link or Linksys. The routers will be used to provide the Wi-Fi signal indoors. And users will be able to call anyone over the Wi-Fi home network for a flat fee. When they're outside the Wi-Fi hotspot, the dual-mode phone, which at launch will likely be the Samsung SGH-T709, will automatically switch over to T-Mobile's cellular network.

Eventually, the T-Mobile dual-mode service could be expanded to T-Mobile's 7,836 hot spots located in airports, cafes and other public areas throughout the country. Once this happens, customers could have even more flexibility in when they get access to the mobile Wi-Fi network.

"I think T-Mobile will migrate to ubiquitous access over time," said Richard Gilbert, CEO of Kineto Wireless. "The service won't work everywhere instantaneously, but this home version is a step in the right direction."

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13 comments

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nice idea...
if T-mobile roll outs this service in near future, I will say goodbye to landline.
Posted by cary1 (924 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Can you say iPhone
I think this is the kind of service Apple has been waiting for.
Posted by Peter Bonte (316 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Brilliant!
This is an excellent deduction. I'll rumor it out even more...Apple
buys T-Mobile, expands network to thousands of locations
worldwide.
; ) too cool.
Posted by robot999 (109 comments )
Link Flag
I'm interested...
in seeing how this will work. I am a T-Mobile customer now (and i
love the service). I will be transitioning to a work-at-home
scenario and this will cause me to dramatically increase my cell
minutes. If I could use my wifi network @ home, that would be
sweet!
Posted by robot999 (109 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Could be cool...
Does this mean that that companies like Vonage would be taking a beating? Or would T-mobile still require some type of VOIP service to be able to use? For instance, I live in an area that is Cox Communications only and has not yet introduced digital phone. But I am able to get broadband cable internet. Will I even need the digital phone service or can T-mobile cut out the middle man? I am also a happy t-mobile customer.
Posted by j_d_mayo (5 comments )
Reply Link Flag
T-Mobile Wi-Fi Voip service
From what I understand of the service, customers would not need a separate VOIP line. T-Mobile will provide the Wi-Fi router and enable the dual mode phone. Then users will pay for their usual cell phone service and likely pay an additional $10 or so a month to get all unlimited calling over the home Wi-Fi network using the dual-mode phone. So this defninitely is a service that could replace cable's home phone offering and VoIP services from Skype or Vonage.
Posted by MaggieReardon (140 comments )
Reply Link Flag
WiFi phone takes out VOIP
Awesome!!
Posted by j_d_mayo (5 comments )
Link Flag
The Begining Of The End
Hopefully this is the begining of the end of the current inadequate mobile cell services in the US. While the carriers continuously dangle shiny new multidevices with yet more bells and whistles basic service remains subpar. If these companies are really smart they would be investing in wimax networks with the capacity to offer superior cell and broadband services. This would render the current cellular systems and anticompetitive cable ISP's obsolete.
Posted by zanzzz (138 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Unlimited cell service is already available
Most cell phone companies are greedy. My plan is $40 a month +Tax for 1000 min. This still is not a great deal. Fortunately flat rate unlimited cell service has been out for several years. www.mycricket.com I see the market headed in this direction.

However if companies are going to offer WIFI service then they should lower the price to a skype level like .01 per min without monthly fees.

Otherwise people are going to just get their own unlocked dual mode GSM/WIFI phones and do it themselves.
KieranMullen
Posted by kieranmullen (1070 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Once 802.11n blankets the city, no cellphone needed.
The emergance of WI-FI branded 802.11 handsets moves us closer to the day when we can drop or cell phone carrier completely.

While the cell companies are buying spectrum like crazy, a bigger and bigger portion of bandwidth is being carried on FREE unlicensed spectrum.

T-mobile is probably the first carrier to understand where this is taking us.
Posted by disco-legend-zeke (448 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Re: Once 802.11N Blankets The City, No Cellphone Needed...
Well, I'd have to agree with you there, that it's going in that direction, but it's not there yet. Plus, let's face it, even when it is there, networks will be locked down.

I don't see the need for cell access going away anytime soon, but it is nice to have the ability to seemlessly switch between 802.11 and cellular connectivity.

T-Mobile does a lot of good things. The unfortunate part is that the coverage of their (cell) network still isn't where Verizon's is YET.

I still continue to keep my eye on them and I absolutely won't rule out switching to them in the future.

Charles R. Whealton
Charles Whealton @ pleasedontspam.com
Posted by chuck_whealton (521 comments )
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