Could UMA be the iPhone’s “one more thing”?


UmaJust a random thought as the morning caffeine gets my brain jump-started this morning. Besides, you all know how much I like to try and predict things in the mobile tech space… as they say: "sometimes even a blind squirrel finds a nut."

I got to thinking about a few developments over the past few months and while it’s a stretch, I’m starting to wonder if we’ll see UMA capabilities in the iPhone… no, "UMA" isn’t an iPhone speed-dial setting to Ms. Thurman. For those not familiar with UMA, or Unlicensed Mobile Access, it’s a relatively new technology that seamlessly routes your cellular phone calls over a WiFi network when it can.

Right off the bat, UMA would have never been a consideration under the old iPhone plans. Apple was getting a piece of the voice and data revenues from AT&T on each iPhone, so it certainly wouldn’t have been in Apple’s interest to offer UMA. After all, that would mean less cellular voice minutes used and therefore the potential revenue for Apple could decline. But under the new agreement going forward with the iPhone 3G, AT&T is keeping all of the service plan revenues; Apple is getting an up-front sum from AT&T for the handsets. That removes one barrier for UMA.

Next we have the "on again, off again" free WiFi for iPhone users. Remember that switch-flipping last month? We haven’t heard much more about it since, and I’m wondering if that was all prep-work for something "bigger" than free WiFi at over 17,000 hotspots… could it be UMA access for your phone calls at those 17,000 hotspots? Might we see some sort of further arrangement with AT&T and Boingo Wireless or another hotspot network? It wouldn’t surprise me. Heck, AT&T home broadband customers already get free WiFi at a bunch of hotspots… which takes me into the next point.

I don’t know how many AT&T customers actually have the company’s DSL service, but I’d guess it to be in the millions. If those folks already have free hotspot access and have broadband at home, aren’t they a nice target audience for a UMA router in their house? While this could hurt AT&T from a landline customer perspective, they know that copper is dying a slow, painful death. Why not transition landline customers to UMA service so they can keep the DSL juices flowing?

As far as the device itself, I haven’t seen a better mobile device that seamlessly finds and connects to hotspots with such ease. Precisely what you’d want for a positive UMA customer experience. And remember, every time you use that UMA handset on a WiFi network, you’re effectively offloading that network traffic from the sometimes overburdened cellular network. AT&T would love to see that: a relatively free infrastrure upgrade so their network could focus more on 3G data and less on voice.

The missing piece to this puzzle is the question: how does this help Apple? On the surface, it might not but I don’t think they’ll care. They’re getting a chunky bit of cash for the hardware now, so services offered on the iPhone don’t matter as much. On the flipside, a celluar phone that works both on standard and WiFi networks might be more appealing to customers and further drive up demand for the iPhone, which plays in Apple’s favor.

Do I want to see this happen? I’m not sure. I’m trying to figure out if more people would be yapping away on their phones at Starbucks if this all plays out. They tend to yap away now, so it probably wouldn’t have a measureable aggrivation impact to me. I’d admit this is all a very long long-shot. Hey, some people read tea leaves… I read coffee grinds. Which reminds me… I need a refill.



I love the UMA service with my 8320 and T-Mobile. I have no cell service at my home, but with UMA I can get all my calls. It’s the main reason I went with T-Mobile. If my iPhone had UMA I would switch in a heartbeat.


I know Apple is very strict on this and I’m sure AT&T wouldn’t like this unless they can charge for this on the iPhone. Just posted because if this ever gets going or something like this without hacking the iPhone seems to be a good solution for iPhone users. I have a iPhone but don’t use it for the phone I use my BB 8330. I use the iPhone just to load music, and software like Fring. :)

Brian E

HG, there are several ways in which a third party solution can’t be as seamless as UMA. For instance, while iCall claims to be able to transfer an inbound call (by having the inbound call go to a number that is not AT&T’s I assume) UMA can transfer any call with no user intervention based on signal strength. In addition, Apple places too many restrictions on the SDK for this to be possible, so this won’t work on anything but a hacked iPhone. (Third party programs can’t ring the phone, for instance; they can only display a simple badge on the app icon ala Mail.)


I had run into this last month about a program called iCall for the iPhone. When this becomes available it will be the answer to the UMA on the iPhone.

Matt over at Zdnet posted it also.

1. Make and receive calls over WiFi
2. Transfer inbound calls from a regular cell call to WiFi instantly and seamlessly – save your expensive minutes
3. Access your same address book
4. Customize your voicemail options


I guess with me, it makes a triplet of T-Mobile Blackberry Curve/8320 owners here. Even though I don’t pay the $10/mo fee for unlimited calling I still use the UMA on a regular basis; it just deducts the minutes from my regular bucket. So how is that useful? Think areas with low signal. Think basements that are three stories below ground. Think international. Yep, during the previous month I was checking my voicemail from Taiwan; as far as T-Mobile was concerned I was still on their regular network. I think that third scenario would make AT&T a little hesitant about deploying UMA, unless they did some limiting to prevent it from being used while abroad.

Some of the other carriers are trying to sell femtocell transceivers. That’s nice and all, but one of those covers only one coverage-less spot, and with the money spent you could definitely buy at least two wifi access points. In either case, for any given femtocell or wifi access point, you’d need to pay for/tap a broadband connection. But meanwhile, there are a whole lot of unsecured access points out there…

Gavin: on the Curve, after associating with an access point that’s on a service that requires login, opening up the browser pops up the login page. After authentication, voice and data pops over to UMA.

Kevin C. Tofel

As always, thanks for the post-editing Mike. Check our “jkOTR jobs” page as I think you’d be a natural fit for the spell-checker position. We’ll start out simple… like have you verify the CAPTCHAs ;)

Wayne Schulz

I used a Blackberry 8320 on T-Mobile with UMA as well. I have to say it worked a LOT better than I thought.

So I think technically it would be all systems go.

Probably the main barrier to this would be whether AT&T felt they could get an additional $ x.xx per month for the service.

This would be cool — though by the time you add everything up fee wise you may not be too far from their unlimited plan cost.

Brian E

I just got a BlackBerry Curve with UMA on T-Mobile, and it’s great. It allows me to use my cell phone as my primary business phone without worrying about minutes, at a substantial cost savings compared to a true unlimited plan. Honestly the iPhone may never have needed 3G if it had UMA. It’s like having a little 3G femtocell wherever there’s a WiFi hotspot, except that the voice quality is better than AT&T’s 3G network.

UMA is also significantly more secure than other forms of VoIP over wireless as all voice traffic is sent over IPSec.

Unfortunately I haven’t heard any rumors at all of UMA on AT&T, nor any inkling of other kinds of femtocells.

Cody B

T-mobile doesn’t hold back on you. My dash came with the live solution pre-installed.

Gavin Miller

Well, I guess it’ll work anywhere that doesn’t require a login screen!

Apple has always been about making money on the hardware, but with the highly subsidised nature of the cellphone market they need that carrier subsidy, and that carrier would be MOST upset to lose revenue to VOIP, so I can’t see it.

If you look at Windows Mobile phones most of them do not come with an IM client, and it’s hard to find Live Messenger anymore, purely and simply because the carriers could lose text messaging revenue, and I’m convinced we won’t be seeing any IM applications on the itunes Store.

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