Cellphones are a great tool to stay in contact with friends and family outside of your home, but what if you want to use it as a primary phone inside your house or office? Many buildings create dead zones of reception making your phone worthless. A new technology is looking to change this problem, using standard Wi-Fi access points instead of cell towers to communicate.
T-Mobile’s HotSpot @Home service was designed to improve cellphone coverage inside buildings. With many people having laptops and using Wi-Fi in their homes these days, it was a no brainer to want to piggy back onto these networks. It takes the strain off of the cell towers in favor of the customer’s paid network, and makes the customer happy in the process.
Even though you end up paying for the backend connection yourself, chances are you already have a working broadband connection, and would love to spend an additional small amount to have a reliable signal inside your home. In theory this service sounds great, but just how well does it work in real life?
To review the service I was given a Samsung T409 phone. At the time of this review there are still only two phones compatible with this service, both of which are pretty cheap featureless models.
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Samsung T409 Specifications:
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The entire process of hopping onto the home network -- or any network in general -- is pretty easy. If it is the first time around for that network, you go into the Settings menu, select Wi-Fi options, view available networks, and select the network you want to join. If you have any network security it will prompt for a passkey, but it stores for future use. After that the network is set up; each time you are within range (with Wi-Fi enabled on the phone) it connects though that.
For the most part the transition was slow if left to do it by itself, but you could do a “quick connect” that would search for known networks, and would then connect immediately.
Those wishing to connect to proxy based wireless networks will have to wait. Any wireless system that requires you to first log in will prevent the phone from establishing a connection to T-Mobile’s service. Since the phone is expecting a working Wi-Fi connection, and does not allow you to view web pages during the process, the needed log-in prompts on the proxy page will go unfilled, and you will be booted. Since many high school or college campus networks use this type of system, don’t expect to have unlimited minutes through that Wi-Fi network just yet. Newer, more feature rich phones will be required for this to happen, and so far none of those phones are compatible with this service yet.
Making calls over the network, or other network activities, once connected to Wi-Fi is the same as through a cell tower. The only indication that you are connected through a different service is an icon change on the main screen. I found no difference in voice quality, and neither did the other party during conversations. On a few separate occasions call quality did degrade, but the range to the access point was the culprit.
The screen indicates it is connected to Wi-Fi and displays access point name
Testing to see how the phone reacted to a service change was pretty easy. I made sure that the phone was connected through Wi-Fi as indicated on the home screen, and then called a friend. Then during the conversation I yanked the cord to the access point. I didn't notice anything being cutoff mid sentence, so the transition was very seamless. I tried this out another handful of times, and only once did I hear any interruption, and that was for a split second.
On the flip side of the HotSpot @Home, I wanted to find out how much bandwidth the service used on my home network. Since I really hate resource hogs, I wanted to make sure transfers were not going to be slowed down while this service was in use.
To test the bandwidth mid-call, I used a program called “iptraf” on my home server to watch incoming and outbound traffic. With all other services on my network stopped (besides the phone through HotSpot @Home) I watched rates as I initiated a phone call. Much to my surprise, the amounts were extremely low: 3 KB/s incoming and 3 KB/s outgoing was the only traffic flowing through my network throughout the call. I was almost tempted to see if the service would work on an old 56k modem, but I figured latency would have killed the connection.
Impact on smartphones
There are already rumors circulating that RIM will be launching a version of the BlackBerry Curve on the T-Mobile network that is capable of leveraging this technology. For $10/month, the potential is remarkable. Being stuck in an office with cellphone signal repellent will be much less of an issue, in addition to a huge potential savings for heavy talkers.
Call quality and migrating between Wi-Fi and the T-Mobile network are the largest concerns, but I didn't have enough trouble with either to discourage me in my testing. Long-term, this is a feature I'd like to see become standard with every Wi-Fi enabled smartphone.
Overall I found the service to be a great alternative to a home landline, or VoIP services. With a single phone and plan, I could use my phone in many places cell service did not reach.
Since it worked from the phone itself, it was less hardware to have around in comparison to VoIP equipment. Being a mobile device also meant I could use the Wi-Fi service in any other spot that had an open access point.
I think that this new type of integration between Wi-Fi and cell phones will start a great trend, and hope to see other companies adopting it as well.
The Samsung T409 is available for $49.99 with monthly service contracts starting from $39.99 via T-Mobile HostSpot @ Home Service.
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