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.