The advantage of using a cell phone as a landline replacement lies in the savings of paying for only one service. Unfortunately, most cell carriers aren't reliable enough to provide drop-free calls indoors. Sprint, which has notoriously spotty service in certain areas of the country, has addressed the issue with a device that connects to your home Internet service, promising to boost any Sprint phone's reception instantly.
The Airave looks like a Wi-Fi router and is about the same size. Glossy white with its own small antenna, it connects to an existing home router via Ethernet cable. Setup, while as simple as plugging in the device, is not instantaneous. To prevent overseas customers from bypassing roaming charges, an internal GPS receiver requires the device to recognize itself as being on U.S. soil (except in Alaska, where the service doesn't work).
Unfortunately, waiting for GPS to hone in on the device the first time takes a maddeningly long time--more than an hour, in our case (subsequent startups only took a few minutes). In urban areas like where we tested (New York City), the external GPS antenna extender was also required. We'd prefer if GPS authentication weren't required at all, and it seems that having an apartment with good GPS acquisition capabilities might be a prerequisite to getting the Airave to work in the first place, which is often impossible in underground or heavily urban areas.
Once working, the Airave is impressive: Cell strength on our Sprint Katana test phone shot from one to six bars, and reception never flagged. Before using the Airave, our test phone had perfectly decent call quality but marginal service. Call quality after connecting the Airave seemed slightly better but no different than that of our existing AT&T service. In this regard, the Airave works as advertised. Without a doubt, it dramatically improves cellular service.
The range quoted by Sprint is 5,000 feet--while we weren't able to achieve this distance in the city, the range is more than enough for any home user. It's effectively the same as a Wi-Fi router's coverage zone--primarily an in-house or in-apartment solution. The service worked in a 600-square-foot apartment, as well as outside in the hallway and up to a floor away. However, when we went down five stories to the ground floor (far less than 5,000 feet), our Katana couldn't access it at all.
Up to three Sprint phones can use the Airave's service simultaneously. Unfortunately, anyone with a Sprint phone can hop on, although access to the Airave can be restricted to certain phones by calling Sprint Customer Care or via Sprint's Web site.
If you initiate a call within the Airave's coverage area and then leave, your call will continue on the regular Sprint network (using up your minutes or remaining unlimited for customers on the unlimited Airave calling plan), so long as you have a good signal when you leave the coverage area. If your signal is weak or spotty, your call will drop. On our tests, we had a weak signal outside of our coverage area, and we did indeed lose the call.
The Sprint Airave costs $99, and on top of that, Sprint charges $4.99 a month just to use it. Considering the device functions by piggybacking on top of one's home Internet service to make calls with preexisting cell minutes, the extra charge seems unjust. Sprint also offers an optional unlimited home calling plan for an extra $10 a month for one user or $20 for families. The unlimited plan does not include data service but does include some fine print. For instance, calls initiated outside your home or office do no switch over once you enter the Airave's coverage area.
The real advantage of Airave seems to lie with Sprint-using homes that need extra home phone reliability and don't have landlines, or small-business owners who use their cell phone at home and don't want dropped calls. If you can absorb the expense--not just for the device, but for home broadband service and the extra fees, too--Airwave works well.