Blog Post

Is T-Mobile Backing Away From UMA?

The other day someone asked me why, in this era of Android (s goog) and iOS (s aapl), I insist on carrying around a BlackBerry (s rimm). 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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49 Responses to “Is T-Mobile Backing Away From UMA?”

  1. Something about my building doesn’t allow for good coverage in my apartment. Which means that the only cell phone coverage that I get, is over wifi. I would really like to get an Android or iOs phone, but, neither of them are UMA enabled. I guess I will be stuck with one of those 4 BlackBerry models. This seems ridiculous though. Why wouldn’t there be any plans to add UMA? I couldn’t possibly be the only one with this problem.

  2. Well, if this is true it stinks. I have no cell coverage from ANY carrier where I live.
    I was using my Blackberry Curve with UMA before I got my G1 and now MyTouch.
    I really think TMO is missing a big audience in rural areas like mine.

  3. I am another Blackberry/Tmob user because of UMA. For me it has been very valuable in the last few years because my coverage at home is not very good (and not just with Tmob, with all operators, due to a mix of environment not well suited for RF and permitting restrictions). Now I am torn because I do want to get an Android handset and, well, will I end up with poor coverage at home once more? It is surprising to see that TMobile is not too keen on this as it is a differentiating factor that does not cost much to them (one of the previous comments mentions that UMA may be free–it is not, because there are licensing fees, but they are not too high).

  4. Bruce Whitehead

    I agree with your comments on T-Mobile’s UMA offering. The lack of a UMA environment on a smart phone has kept me from upgrading. I have experienced some problems with the handoff from GSM to WiFi and vice versa but that is a minor issue. The QOS of my voice service when in a UMA context has been excellent.

  5. I agree with you completely. I have moved and get a horrible signal in my new home and had to switch to a Blackberry to use UMA (works perfectly btw), but I am sure now that It looks unlikely for TMob to get UMA calling that I will probably leave Tmob. A huge opportunity missed I believe like you.

  6. michael STEWART

    think maybe the reason that t-mo is not going to get UMA ANDROID devices is google is keeping that money stream for themselves in a gizmo5/google voice mashup?

    NOKIA who has a ton of UMA devices lost their marketing chief, what happens if they drop a UMA/ANDROID?

  7. UMA isnt so much of a way to make up for coverage as to provide coverage where NO ONE gets a signal. I use it everyday to get a signal inside my campus/work buildings and wont stray from blackberry and tmobile because of this. The second its gone I’ll be switching providers.

  8. Well…I’ve been patient with T-mobile for quite a while waiting for UMA roll out on Android but in a few months I’m moving and my high rise spoty coverage will no longet be an issue and then it’s hello Droid-2 on Verizon…I don’t understand why the under dog carrier does not want to exploit the only advantage it has over the big guys..?

  9. Well…I’ve been patient with T-mobile for quite a while waiting for UMA rol out on Android but in a few months I’m moving and my high rise spoty coverage will no longet be an issue and then it’s hello Droid-2 on Verizon…I don’t understand why the under dog carrier does not want to exploit the only advantage it has over the big guys..?

  10. I would love if T-mobile would offer UMA in Germany as well, in particular to improve network coverage at home and to save roaming costs.
    However, it does not seem T-mobile is by any means chaning their plans and would introduce the service here.
    However, UMA seems to be very popular in France and UK (free for Orange subscribers!).
    I’m not sure if Orange ES is still offering their unico service, though.

  11. As a T-Mobile customer, UMA is the ONLY reason our family stays with them. If they ever discontinue UMA, we will leave the next month, as we are month-to-month customers (another good thing about T-Mobile).
    However, T-Mobile seems to be leaving behind the customers who have been supporting this technology, likely because they could make more money being greedy like all the other cell cariers in the U.S.
    For anyone who travels outside the U.S., UMA reduces your calls to ZERO, as you only lose minutes, NOT MONEY.
    Why people can’t figure this out is beyond me. The real future for UMA should be Android. Don’t screw this up, T-Mobile

  12. I don’t think this is necessarily in T-Mobile’s hands. UMA needs to be implemented in the handset’s radio baseband. Very few vendors ship basebands with this capability, and RIM and Nokia happen to be on that list. For the rest of the operators who are selling mainly featurephones to the likes of Verizon, ATT and other global carriers who don’t support UMA, adding the UMA feature to the baseband just adds more SKUs, complexity, and price for which they can’t charge the other operators any more money.

    If T-Mobile wanted to pay a whole lot more per handset, I’m sure they could get the HTC’s of the world to ship devices with UMA, but it’s probably not worth it for them.

    My sense is that as background processing / battery management gets better over the next year or two, we’ll see VoIP apps replacing UMA on handsets. Already today I have my Google Voice number forward to my phones as well as my Skype number. When I’m in a low-coverage location on my iPhone, I’ll launch Skype and it’ll let me receive calls that way. While that does a nasty number on my battery today, I’d bet on the VoIP guys and OS vendors improving battery performance well before we see any broader usage of UMA.

    (Full disclosure: I also carry around my T-Mobile Bold 9700 in San Francisco along w/ my iPhone, just so that I can deal with messaging more effectively… and UMA is a huge part of making today’s BlackBerry+T-Mobile experience better in SF and especially when abroad.)

  13. I just heard that there is a another company with righs to UMA and they have two BB’s models with unlimited plan of roughly $70/month. I recently switch from TM to sprint to due signal droping in the house all the time and spotty service in South Florida locations.But being said traveling to Europe with BB and unlimited plan plus UMA sounds like a bargain to me.With groving WiFi worldwide you not gonna need cell phone towers that much to make a call…I have little more info available if interested.

  14. I love UMA, but ultimately decided that as a paying customer, I shouldn’t “have” to use a Wi-Fi connection to cover the holes in T-Mobile’s network. I know that statement reeks of entitlement but that’s my feeling.

    In my area (Washington DC) T-Mobile’s 3G network is spotty at best. I get no service while at work (hence the need for UMA), and I only get Edge service when near a window or outside. Meanwhile, all the people I know here that use Verizon can walk around the building with a full 3G signal like it’s nothing. Even in the basement.

    When traveling T-Mo becomes even more of an issue. I had to spend a few months in north Texas and yet again, no 3G service unless I was downtown in the city. At my hotel, I could barely hold a 2G signal.

    Once again, everyone I knew using Verizon had no issues whatsoever.

    Needless to say, I’ve since decided to switch (to Verizon).

    But who knows, maybe one day, pending some major network expansion I’ll come back into the fold. I liked T-Mobile for their top-notch customer service, but IMO, the quality of their network, and lower end phone selection is really beginning to hurt them in the US.

  15. We have used UMA since the day it came out on aa couple of “dumb” Nokia and Samsung models. When it came out on the BB 8320, the three of us in the office got it.
    Since then, wife and I travel overseas 2-3 times a year. Before we leave, we activate TM’s unlimited BB intl email option at 67 cents/day for the days we’ll be gone. The few, but necessary voice calls that are made are done over wifi which is now getting more and more ubiquitous.
    We just got back from 2 weeks in Brazil, Argentina, and Uraguay. Probably made only 100 minutes worth of voice calls back to U.S. If we paid TM’s std. voice roaming rates, it would have cost.$250+. Via UMA, nada. For heavy intl. business tavelers – using UMA could really be a major saving.
    I was on Omnipoint-Voicestream’s/TM intl. roaming package for years where roaming in many countries was 29 cents/min for incoming. I had to give up those grandfathered in rates a couple years ago when I changed plans. If they could keep making money at those rates while charging new users $1+/min – then roaming rates are way too high.
    So, with unlimited email and UMA (free) calling – can’t give up the BB. Even if the Android had UMA, would still have to pay high data charges for recving/sending email. AND, with the BB, you can msg., free, any other BB in the world. If wife and I got separated in a market in Rio, she could just msg me via BB. A sending/reeving voicce call (no wifi there) would have totaled $5.

  16. The business case for UMA is positively in consumer’s favor, however, giving more choices to customers leaves corporate midget brains nervous and fearful of revenue declines. This is a great opportunity for a new venture to spearhead UMA offering on Android.

  17. Totally agreed on UMA’s value. But Fring and a cheap VOIP account can get the job done on Android, even if you’ll probably miss the benefits of a single Caller ID number (does anyone know a VOIP service that will let you set your Caller ID to an arbitrary phone number?).

  18. Conquistador

    With the FCC supposedly about to rule (favorably) this month on Whitespace usage, and Google’s prior enthusiasm for it – it’s odd that Android doesn’t support it *and* that T-mobile chose now to move away from it.

  19. 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.

  20. Kumar Ampani

    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 -:)

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. phil swenson

    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?

      • 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.

  24. 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. :(

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.).

  28. 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.