Landlines in the home could all but go away if cell phone reception indoors were better. As it is, many users resort to standing by a window to get just a single bar of coverage. T-Mobile aims to change that with its HotSpot @Home service, which gives you landline-like call quality over Wi-Fi for $9.99 per month or $19.99 per month for families (up to five phones) but only when you also buy a new hybrid Wi-Fi-cellular HotSpot phone (starting at $50). That's still significantly cheaper than most digital calling options like Optimum Voice and Vonage. Plus, you can use your HotSpot phone at more than 8,500 T-Mobile HotSpot locations. We took the service for a test drive around our home and on the go (view our gallery). It has a few kinks, but for those looking to lower their monthly expenses--and who are tired of standing by the window--T-Mobile is onto something.
It took us less than 15 minutes to set things up. We first installed the Linksys HotSpot @Home router (free after rebate if you choose the unlimited plan), a tweaked version of the popular 802.11g-enabled WRT54G that works with your existing broadband connection. You don't necessarily have to replace your current router, but this one is optimized for T-Mobile's service. It's smart enough to prioritize voice over data traffic, and it's designed to improve battery life on HotSpot phones. Just as important, pairing our Nokia 6086--one of the two HotSpot phones currently available--with this router was simple: Just select Get Security Key on the phone's Wi-Fi menu, and then press the Security button on the front of the router. (With other routers, you'll need to enter your WEP or WPA security key manually.) From that point on, you'll have a profile saved in your HotSpot phone; the handset should automatically recognize and connect to your home network when you walk in the door.
When we tried calling a friend in Boston from our condo's kitchen, he said he couldn't tell that we were using a cell phone and that we sounded loud and clear. When we disconnected the phone from the router and tried him back from the same spot on the cellular network, he said we sounded hollow and fuzzy. Our end of the line also sounded fuzzy. We left two test voice messages on a landline, and the difference was night and day. On the other hand, this disparity reinforces how relatively spotty T-Mobile's cellular network is compared with that of AT&T and Verizon Wireless.
Nevertheless, all cell phones have problems with signal strength indoors, and this is where Hotspot @Home shined.With Wi-Fi off in most parts of our home we saw a single bar of coverage on the Nokia 6086. With Wi-Fi on, we never dropped below three bars, even when we went to the side of our condo opposite the router and made a call behind a closed door in a small room. We also noticed that the data performance on the phone improved with Wi-Fi on. For example, it took only 7 seconds to download Live Free or Die Hard: The Mobile Game over Wi-Fi, versus 13 seconds over EDGE.
Another supposed benefit of HotSpot @Home is that because it's based on Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) technology, your calls should seamlessly switch from Wi-Fi to GSM, and vice versa, as you enter or leave your abode. The other benefit is cost savings. If you start a call on the HotSpot @Home service and leave the house, the call will continue to be billed as part of your $9.99-per-month unlimited calling plan. Keep in mind, however, that if you start a call in GSM mode and come home, it will continue to count against your monthly cellular minutes. Of course, this is a non-issue for talkers with unlimited cell minutes.
To test how well these handoffs work, we called the free information service Tellme, turned on the speakerphone, and walked out the door. Our @Home router's signal stretched to at least 200 feet before our Nokia 6086 switched over to GSM mode. Most of the time the transition was so seamless that we didn't hear so much as a click on the line. But during two of the test runs, the call simply disconnected as we walked away from the house. When coming back toward our home, in most cases our phone seamlessly switched back to Wi-Fi, either as we approached the door or as soon as we came back inside. On one occasion, though, it took our phone about a minute to switch from GSM to Wi-Fi.
Next, we tried making some calls at two Starbucks locations in New York City. We were impressed that our Nokia 6086 automatically connected to the T-Mobile HotSpot service within just a few seconds when we were standing outside each coffee shop--we didn't have to do a thing. We then made two calls, one over Wi-Fi and one over GSM, to a landline and left a voicemail. The Wi-Fi message sounded much clearer; in fact, several words on the GSM message were garbled or cut off. We heard an audible buzzing on our end of the line at the first Starbucks--for both Wi-Fi and GSM calls--but we had no problems at the second location. We also started a conversation over Wi-Fi and then walked to work while continuing to gab away, and the handoff to GSM was smooth.
Although T-Mobile HotSpot @Home worked fairly well--both at home and on the road--some users might want to wait before jumping on the bandwagon. For one, the routers optimized for this service support the aging 802.11g technology, not the faster 802.11n protocol that's included in most new notebooks. Second, the phones themselves are not exactly cutting edge. For example, the Nokia 6086 we tested has a low-res screen and only a VGA camera, although it does feature Bluetooth. The Samsung t409, the other HotSpot phone, has all of the same features but adds a 1.3-megapixel camera and a better-looking display. It also costs $50. Neither option is state of the art, but this service is just getting off the ground, and we assume higher-end HotSpot handsets are on the way.
Is this service worth ditching your landline for? Despite some occasional flakiness, it's a no-brainer for T-Mobile customers who care more about voice than multimedia bells and whistles. And as the carrier rolls out more sophisticated phones and routers that support HotSpot @Home, we think it will be able to lure customers away from other wireless providers.
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