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T-Mobile plans to launch a Wi-Fi-cellular converged phone service in Seattle and potentially one other market next month on September 12th, sources say. More markets will follow soon after. The city of Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area are the likely candidates for a possible […]

T-Mobile plans to launch a Wi-Fi-cellular converged phone service in Seattle and potentially one other market next month on September 12th, sources say. More markets will follow soon after. The city of Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area are the likely candidates for a possible rollout.

T-Mobile’s converged service is based on a standard called Unlicensed Mobile Access, popularly known by its acronym, UMA. The news that T-Mobile has been doing trials of services using the wireless convergence standard UMA have been slowly coming to light. Business Week points out a service targeted at in-home cell phone users called T-Mobile-At-Home, which seems like UMA, but the article doesn’t name the standard. Engadget had also posted information about the UMA trial.

We’ll see if T-Mobile can meet its planned launch date, but the company is eager to start deploying UMA given it can not only take a piece of in-home calls, but can also use UMA to handoff in its thousands of T-Mobile WiFi hotspots. UMA is a standard that enables the handoff of calls between cellular (GSM only) and unlicensed wireless like WiFi.

More than any other carrier in the U.S. T-Mobile has the incentive to use UMA — it ranks behind the top 3 U.S. carriers, only reported 613,000 net new customers for the second quarter of this year, and owns valuable WiFi real estate that it can use to grow those subscribers. The company would only confirm that UMA is one of the technologies that the company believes will help replace landline calls.

We’re not sure when T-Mobile will target any of its UMA services beyond what seems like an initial in-home calling launch, but adding hotspot coverage could be its trump card.

What exactly is UMA? It’s an international standard that has been in development for years by a consortium of carriers and companies. The technology works with both bluetooth and WiFi and uses dual-mode phones to roam between WiFi and cellular networks. Deployment of wide-reaching UMA services require UMA infrastructure in the network that companies like Alcatel, Nokia, Kineto Wireless, Motorola and Ericsson provide, as well as UMA software on dual-mode handsets developed by Motorola, Nokia, and Kineto.

Other companies have been trying to figure out the best way to handoff between various networks, and we pointed out startups like Divitas last month, but carriers are just starting to turn to UMA to solve the problem. Telecom Italia could launch a UMA service as early as the Fall, and TeliaSonera is considering UMA as well. In a major win for UMA, Orange is rumored to be choosing the option, though hasn’t announced its decision publicly. It’s not too hard to see why GSM carriers would opt for UMA.

As voice becomes even more of a commodity service and use of data services grows, the carriers all know that they need to adopt converged network services and offer easier ways to roam across networks. Most carriers are terrified of losing some of the revenues from cellular voice calls to cheaper WiFi voice calls, but as WiFi and other wireless networks grow, there is really no way around it. And because T-Mobile has been working on WiFi hotspots for years, it has a head start in this market. For the carriers that don’t have WiFi assets, UMA also gives the carrier a modicum of control as it makes this transition. Andrew Schmitt also points out how this gives the carriers a head start in the battle for the home with cable operators.

The carriers are so concerned about using UMA to control this shift, that likely UMA services won’t be able to handoff onto disruptive city-wide WiFi networks for quite some time. Handsets will likely be pre-programmed to roam onto approved WiFi networks only, and say, for subscribers living in a city like Mountain View, CA, with its city-wide Google WiFi network, why would a carrier agree to help switch all its customer’s calls onto a city-wide WiFi network?

It won’t, at least not for a really long time. This will likely be a major story going forward, and probably one of the reasons T-Mobile is launching its first UMA network targeted at in-home users only.

  1. Related issue about roaming onto random Wi-Fi hotspots (paid, free, opportunistically available): The UMA handsets that are being released require a special Wi-Fi gateway protocol to have decent power management. Wi-Fi chips have gotten better about using very little power in standby modes–some use 2% of peak power–but there’s a lot of standby issues that need coordination from the gateway.

    The Nokia 6136 UMA handset lists in its tech specs that UMA talk time is “up to 5.5 hours, if U-APSD is supported in the access point.” This is also, apparently, known as WMM Power Save, as a certifiable feature from the Wi-Fi Alliance.

    I have never seen this as an advertised feature, but a number of major chip vendors offer WMM Power Save in their chips. This has to be enabled in firmware, too, obviously. In T-Mobile’s leak in Engadget, I noticed that users had to have a special T-Mobile Wi-Fi router.

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  2. In every announced UMA deployments so far — they are all coming from cell phone carriers with landline parents — BT, Telecom Italia, France Telecom/Orange, and TeliaSonera.

    It’s all triple play — cell phone, landline and DSL — maybe with a dabble of the carrier’s own wifi hotspot access.

    No carrier has ever announced UMA deployment yet — on cellular phone carrier + wifi hotspot combo. It will be interesting if T-Mobile USA will ever find the right business model for this technology — in light that they don’t own a landline carrier in the US and network neutrality debate going nowhere.

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  3. Would like to add some points to the article:
    – BT in UK is offering Bluetooth-based UMA service for around one year and there is even UMA-compatible Moto Razr available for purchase.
    – It is likely that UMA will be offered only by T-Mobile in the US because:
    — There is no UMA version for CDMA carriers available to date and no CDMA handsets with UMA support. Verizon and Sprint will wait for IMS/SIP technology to become available to provide seamless handover
    — Cingular publically aknowledged that it would also go straight for IMS solution by-passing UMA.
    – The main benefit of UMA is indoor coverage – something cellular networks are not good at
    – With the US cellular plans offering allocated buckets of minutes for a flat fee, I don’t see how VoWiFi can steal some revenues from cellular. Whether you use your plan’s minutes or not you’re paying the same monthly fee. The voice is already commoditized. If you add to this free calls between family members or in-network free calls, plus after 9pm free calling and free week-end calls you’ll see that there is little left for WiFi to steal. In this case, WiFi is more about the service differentiation and convenience for users. While data over WiFi remains another topic to talk about.

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  4. Actually, with UMA you don’t are about what WiFi network your customers are on. UMA creates a SIP connection back to your GSM Switch, regardless, that you can capture as a billable event. T-Mobile can easily set things up so that calls are free on home WiFi, $0.05/minute on T-Mobile hot spots, and $0.50/minute on all other WiFi networks. The bigger issue is how many SSID will the handset be able to remember for seamless handover and how onerous a task will it be a for a user to enter a new one (and do you even let the user enter a new one). Then there is the talk time issue Glenn brought up. Without special support in the access points, you are not going to get better than 1 hour talk time, vs. 3+ hours with GSM.

    If T-Mobile wants to be serious about this, they should consider buying Vonage. Being able to offer Vonage on a cell phone might just be compelling enough to work. Plus, they get a ready made brand and customers for this service which allows them to order larger quantities of handsets and get better prices. Contrary to yaromir’s comment, I have heard that Cingular is doing some UMA as a tie-in with AT&T, so that will be more pricing pressure on handsets. Still every little bit helps for a service you are targeting towards the lowend (UMA doesn’t make much sense for people with large voice plans).

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  5. Of course, the UMA technology doesn’t care what wifi network that you are on. But the business model and tech support issues are much more complicated.

    If I am going to pay $x per month for a UMA service — and then my landline or cable broadband provider puts a QoS setting that makes it impossible for the UMA service to work reliably — who am I am going complain. I am going to complain to TMO.

    So far — EVERY single UMA announcements have come from triple bundling business model. You have to subscribe to their mobile phone service, their landline service and their broadband service. Even AT&T/Cingular has a better business model with this UMA technology than the mobile only TMO US.

    Every single day, Vodafone gets asked about their position on buying landline carriers to do triple bundling. You don’t see Vodafone talking about bundling UMA with hotspots with mobile plans. TMO US has a very questionable business model .

    TMO has 25 million customers. Vonage has less than 2 million customers. Buying Vonage won’t help handset issue a bit.

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  6. This has to be targeting customers other than on family plans. It may include more than the low end (pre-paid) customers because singles and high usage business subscribers may benifit from this service too.

    It also can reduce infrastructure cost because it will reduce the demand for additional cell site/equip to handle the growing voice and data traffic.

    One thing about TM US bussiness I do not understand: If its service quality is ranked so high (highest among the majors, as high as VZW), and the price so low (lowest among the majors), why its churn rate is still so high (the highest among the majors and is 2.5 times of that of VZW) ?

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  7. TMO US is rank #1 in CS (customer service) — i.e. when you call them to complain about their network, TMO gives you a bunch of free minutes. Nothing to do with “service quality” of their network.

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  8. Jesse Kopelman Thursday, August 17, 2006

    Nick, I agree with you that UMA (especially at home) puts T-Mobile in exactly the same position as Vonage with regards to being at the mercy of network providers. However, T-Mobile is a pretty big fish and I don’t know if anyone is big enough to really screw with them, let alone parent Deutsche Telecom. This is why the combination with Vonage makes sense. Solid backing for Vonage plus enough customers for T-Mobile to make them really care about doing this right.

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  9. Remember to protect your connection using a VPN service, e. g. iPig (see link above or hotspotvpn.com )

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  10. However, T-Mobile is a pretty big fish and I don’t know if anyone is big enough to really screw with them, let alone parent Deutsche Telecom.

    I disagree.

    The whole business model for Vodafone and T-Mobile as a worldwide mobile only carrier has been questioned by Wall Street. Vodafone and T-Mobile can’t beat former local landline monopolies with a mobile subsidiaries.

    Vodafone got out of Japan with massive losses — they can’t beat NTT/Docomo, KDDI (with its own landline). Guess what Vodafone sold their Japanese subsidiary to Softbank that also owns Yahoo Japan broadband. Triple bundling.

    They can’t win against France Telecom/Orange with their triple bundling in France. They can’t win against Baby Bells with their triple bundling in the US.

    The business model for the satellite tv carriers was also very promising 10 years ago —- until the rise of broadband internet access kill their entire business model. Vodafone’s and T-Mobile’s business model faces the same fate.

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