T-Mobile Rolls Out UMA Phone Nationwide, Blending WiFi with EDGE

After an apparently successful initial test run in parts of Washington State, T-Mobile USA today is ready to roll out its first hybrid WiFi/EDGE phone service: its UMA-based Hot Spot @ Home. The idea is to enable customers to drop their land lines altogether, without picking up someone else's bundled service that would usurp those savings.

We first started hearing word of Unlicensed Mobile Access technology two years ago when Nokia first introduced it to the US, and we wondered whether it would be cellular carriers who would first leverage it to offer combination cellular/Internet packages, or ISPs who would use it as a way to resell phone service from smaller carriers. As it turned out, neither was the case: In T-Mobile's nationwide rollout of what it's calling "Hot Spot @ Home," it's practically giving customers a WiFi router, but letting them choose their own ISP.

T-Mobile could have locked customers into a long-term decision involving multiple services bundled together which they can't take apart. Instead, it's chosen to leave the broadband choice open. It's giving customers a router (more accurately, they're paying for it but they're being rebated in full) from either Linksys or D-Link (customer's choice) that will enable VoIP calls within their router's coverage zone at home.

It's then leasing customers new phones from either Nokia or Samsung that can take calls from both the WiFi router and GSM/GPRS/EDGE networks, and can seamlessly transfer between them whenever customers enter or exit the reach of their routers.

Nokia's 6086 EDGE/WiFi-capable phoneWith "H@H," T-Mobile is trying to plant its foot squarely in the doorway of customers who may already be on their way out, making the exodus from landline phones. Having one number is more convenient, but mobile minutes plans are not. This way, the theory is that customers will see the benefits of dropping one class of home phone service without the burden of investing the same, or more, money into a new one. The whole point is getting rid of at least one monthly bill.

To that end, T-Mobile appears to be gambling that its H@H customer is practical, maybe even pragmatic, and not necessarily a typical early adopter. Neither the Samsung t409 nor the Nokia 6086 are particularly flashy phones, though both feature Bluetooth, instant messaging, and the requisite standard on-board camera. The Nokia is a quad-band phone (850/900/1800/1900), while the Samsung is tri-band (850/1800/1900).

In initial tests, JupiterResearch analyst Michael Gartenberg tried both phones, and seems to prefer the Nokia, certainly not because it's more stylish but because it sounded better to his ear, and had better Bluetooth performance.

"While most carriers are focusing on delivering music or other secondary services," Gartenberg wrote this morning, "T-Mobile has focused on the core experience of a mobile phone, voice communication. By enabling the shift to a usage model that now extends back to the home, T-Mobile has enhanced the value of their overall offerings and provided some rather strong differentiation from competitive offerings."

For what T-Mobile is calling "a limited time," it's offering H@H service for an additional $9.99 per month on top of existing service plan charges, and $19.99 per month for five-line "family" plans.

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