T-Mobile Dials Up Wi-Fi

Its HotSpot@Home is easy to use, but the handsets aren't great

TECH & YOU PODCAST

Staring in dismay at your monthly mobile-phone bill, you've probably thought about trying out one of the new wireless handsets that run on a cheap or free Wi-Fi network, of the sort that may already be in your home. Such phones have never been particularly user-friendly, but T-Mobile has come up with a fresh approach that's practical, and nearly effortless to use.

For $10 a month, on top of your regular plan, you can eliminate the problem of poor wireless coverage in your home and make unlimited calls without using voice-plan minutes. All it takes is a broadband connection, a Wi-Fi network, and one of two Wi-Fi-ready handsets.

For T-Mobile USA, the new T-Mobile HotSpot @Home service makes a virtue of necessity. The company has invested heavily in Wi-Fi and operates thousands of public hotspots in airports, hotels, and retailers such as Starbucks (SBRX ) and Borders (BGP ). But its voice network suffers from spotty coverage, and it is way behind rivals Verizon, Sprint Nextel (S ), and AT&T (T ) in building high-speed data networks for mobile phones.

The problem with Wi-Fi in handsets has been the lack of any simple way to switch between the phone network and Wi-Fi. Taking advantage of Wi-Fi required connecting manually to a network and using voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) software that did not let you make or receive calls using your handset's regular phone number. No wonder Wi-Fi capabilities ended up being used almost exclusively for data.

UNDER T-MOBILE'S NEW APPROACH, the Wi-Fi setup is completely automated. If you get either a Linksys or D-Link wireless router suppled by T-Mobile ($50, free after rebate) or any other router that complies with the Wi-Fi Protected Setup standard, the push of a button on the router automatically configures your handset for the network. After that, you will connect to the Wi-Fi network in your home--or to one outside--whenever your phone comes into range.

Equally important: Your phone behaves exactly as if it is on T-Mobile's regular wireless network, even though you are connected through Wi-Fi. Instead of a signal being sent to your handset from a tower, the call travels over the Web to your home network, which then generates a ring signal. If you happen to be on a call when you move in or out of Wi-Fi coverage, you switch networks without dropping the connection.

I found both handsets worked seamlessly at all the T-Mobile hotspots I tried. And they'll do so throughout the U.S., though not abroad. You can also connect to any other Wi-Fi network, such as one in the office, if you have a password--or if the network doesn't require one. You cannot, however, connect to public Wi-Fi networks that ask you to register on a Web page, even if they are otherwise free. And international calls are still subject to long-distance charges.

The biggest flaw in HotSpot @Home is the poor choice of handsets that work with it. T-Mobile offers only two relatively low-end models, the Nokia (NOK ) 6086 and the Samsung t409 (both $50 with an @Home subscription). There are lots of other Wi-Fi-ready handsets, including the HTC Dash and Wing smartphones already offered by T-Mobile, and an assortment of feature-rich Nokias sold in Europe, such as the E61 and N95, but they're not set up to work with HotSpot @Home. T-Mobile says it will offer additional handsets in coming months.

The technology that makes @Home work is a standard called Unlicensed Mobile Access. It would be a boon to Apple's (AAPL ) new iPhone, but iPhone carrier AT&T hasn't implemented it. And it's not available with the network technology used by Verizon and Sprint. T-Mobile has long been viewed as a technological laggard in the U.S., but @Home shows it has some tricks up its sleeve.

For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Technology & You at businessweek.com/go/techmaven/

By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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