Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA), a technology that allows mobile users to send and received phone calls via Wi-Fi without needing special Femtocells, has been a key distinguishing feature on T-Mobile’s BlackBerry phones. Unfortunately, UMA seems to be less important to T-Mobile USA.

BlackBerry Bold 9700

The other day someone asked me why, in this era of Android and iOS, I insist on carrying around a BlackBerry. I could offer many reasons — one being that the BlackBerry keyboard makes sifting through email and replying to instant and text messages easy — but the biggest reason for me is the Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) technology on my T-Mobile BlackBerry Bold.

UMA allows me to make and receive phone calls and receive text messages over Wi-Fi. When traveling overseas, I can make cheap phone calls to U.S. phones without worrying about overages. Given T-Mobile’s Wi-Fi HotSpot network, UMA can be pretty useful in areas where T-Mobile’s cellular network has spotty coverage. I’ve often used my MiFi as a way to do work around the holes in the T-Mobile’s network. In fact, UMA is the primary reason why I stick with T-Mobile.

However, this very useful technology isn’t getting much love from T-Mobile. The U.S. arm of the German phone giant is a big supporter of Google’s Android OS, and last week, when I asked a T-Mobile USA representative if there were plans to add UMA to Android phones, he said T-Mobile will continue to support UMA on the current and forthcoming BlackBerry devices and Nokia E73. That’s four models in total. In other words, T-Mobile has no plans on adding UMA to Android phones.

The falling fortunes of UMA are the polar opposite of T-Mobile’s strategy four years ago when the fourth largest U.S. carrier was touting the Wi-Fi/Cellular hybrid service as the next big thing. A spokesperson said that now that lower-cost, flat-rate, all-you-can-eat voice plans were commonplace, it didn’t make much sense for the company to keep pushing its UMA service.

I think the Seattle-based carrier is making a mistake. I think UMA is a good way to overcome networks that are less than stellar. With the growing presence of Wi-Fi in our modern lives, I think T-Mobile is missing an opportunity. It could use UMA on Android as a way to stand out against its competitors.

What do you think?

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  1. Brian McConnell Monday, September 13, 2010

    This is disappointing. The cost of adding UMA to Android phones would be little or nothing, and if it’s there, why not use it? I switched to an Android phone last year, but miss UMA when I am in locations where the coverage is less than ideal.

  2. i have never liked the idea of UMA or wifi in general as a way to supplement cellular for quality reasons. the cellular networks should be good enough to stand on their own.

    for me the big attraction of UMA is the idea of free international roaming if only on wifi. of course t-mobile may see this point as a negative since they surely lose international roaming revenue from UMA users.

  3. There are LOTS of TMobile users including me who have poor cellular coverage indoor and UMA for us is a godsend. Any smartphone w/ UMA gets my business on T-Mobile because it trumphs everything else including fancy browsers and apps. Currently, it’s BB Curve and it looks like it will be another BB next time, probably with OS 6.0. I believe Android or WP7 can pick up substantial users if they would just add UMA to the feature list.

    Om, I don’t think it’s T-Mobile who is deciding not to support UMA on Android. UMA is a tricky little technology that deals with GSM/Wifi call handoffs and I think Android folks just don’t consider it a high priority feature because it’s T-mobile specific (at least in the U.S.).

  4. I agree that it’s a great differentiator. I presented on behalf of T-Mobile at Blackberry’s WES convention earlier this year and remember how interested the audience was in our presentation focusing on UMA as a business-wide cost cutter for enterprise mobility. It was hard to go anywhere the rest of the day without getting stopped by someone who had been at the audience. Both in terms of domestic cell phone minute reduction and international roaming, there’s some real savings there.

    Given T-Mobile’s traditional problems in gaining enterprise mindshare and having lower ARPU than the top 3 US carriers, I’d think that they’d want a feature that provides significant business appeal. They’re not going to win on network or pure marketing spend against ATT and Verizon and their customer service reputation will only go so far. UMA + Android + WiFi could be a great combination.

  5. I’m frequently in areas with poor cell coverage. I like the Android OS. If T-Mobile puts out an Android phone that is enabled for UMA, I’ll become their customer; else, the other providers have better coverage in places I care about.

  6. In downtown Chicago, I’m in and out of highrises where I can’t get a signal, so I rely on UMA to keep me connected. Same with travel – when I have wifi, and thus I can call/text/whatever.

    If T-Mobile ditches UMA, then it looks like I’m leaving T-Mobile. :(

  7. how well does UMA work? I recently got a microcell for my house and have found that my comcast internet QoS is too low for VOIP, so my iphone still doesn’t work well when calls are routed over internet. Is this typical?

    1. with my comcast connection it wasn’t the QoS but excessive latency that doomed vonage and sometimes UMA.

      1. I guess it has to do location. I live in South Florida, and I use Vonage and both my BB are on UMA at home. I had to play with my connections to make everything work just right…router > Wireless router >> Bridge (other side of house with VoIP). With this setup I have gotten download speed of 86Kbps constantly….no more dropped, or spotty calls on VoIP, nor UMA!!!!

        I do believe that the Comcast network is fiberoptic.

  8. I loved UMA on my nokia phone because I had such bad signal in my office. Moving to Android was bittersweet for me because of the loss of this feature. I REALLY hope they change their mind about this. Not having it is forcing me to go VoIP over WiFi.

  9. From reading this article and a number of the responses it would appear that UMA — in a pinch — is a great alternative to the lack of coverage.

    I guess one would ask why would T-Mobile move away from UMA? Perhaps Magenta is banking on the ubiquity of HSPA+? By the end of 2010 they have publicly announced that 200 million Americans will be covered — that is 2/3 of the countries population.

    With download speeds of up to 9Mbp/s — that could make WiFi an irrelevant argument.

  10. Agree with you 100%, the only reason I am with T-mobile is for UMA. It works not only during international travel, but works great where there is no reception ( including my home -:)

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