CNET editor Dong Ngo explains how Wi-Fi calling works with the latest smartphones, including the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, and picks the top five routers that are best for this technology.
Dong NgoSF Labs Manager, Editor / Reviews
CNET editor Dong Ngo has been involved with technology since 2000, starting with testing gadgets and writing code for CNET Labs' benchmarks. He now manages CNET San Francisco Labs, reviews 3D printers, networking/storage devices, and also writes about other topics from online security to new gadgets and how technology impacts the life of people around the world.
Since the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus are the first Apple phones that support both the 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard and Wi-Fi Calling, the cell coverage for your smartphone has just jumped to a new level. So what is Wi-Fi Calling?
This is a technology that allows smartphones to deliver voice calls and text messages via an Internet-ready Wi-Fi network, instead of the regular cellular network. It's similar to Skype, but users can use their actual cell phone number for the communication in a seamless experience. In other words, Wi-Fi Calling lets the smartphone use the wireless signal of a Wi-Fi network it's connected to, as an extension of the cellular coverage. As long as the Wi-Fi network is connected to the Internet, the phone can make calls and send and receive messages, no matter where you are in the world.
Apart from bringing a cell signal to places it couldn't reach before (lower levels of a building or the basement), Wi-Fi Calling allows international travelers to call or text home without having to pay roaming charges, all with the convenience of simply using the smartphone.
Locating local internet providers
In order for Wi-Fi Calling to work, it needs to be supported by the smartphone (most Android phones already do this) and the carrier. In the US, currently T-Mobile and Sprint support Wi-Fi Calling, with other carriers expected to soon follow suit.
For the end-users, the call quality of Wi-Fi Calling depends on the Wi-Fi signal and the Internet connection of that network. When traveling, there's not much you can do, since both the Wi-Fi network and the Internet connection are at the mercy of the particular destination. However, when you're at home, having a great Wi-Fi router would help increase the cell coverage a great deal, as well as the quality of Wi-Fi Calling. And if you have the new or 6 Plus, it's time to upgrade your home network to support 802.11ac anyway.
Locating local internet providers
Following is a list of the top five home routers that, among other things, work well for Wi-Fi Calling. They are especially helpful for voice calls when you have a moderate or slow broadband connection. And if you have a fast broadband connection, these routers will make sure you get the best out of your Internet speed. All of them are high-end 802.11ac routers that have top-notch real-world performance and built-in QoS features that can automatically prioritize the Internet traffic for Wi-Fi Calling as well as other services.
These routers are listed in the order in which they were reviewed, with the most recent review first.
T-Mobile Personal CellSpot
The T-Mobile Personal CellSpot (aka TM-AC1900) is a router with Wi-Fi Calling at heart. This is a top-tier router with great features and excellent Wi-Fi performance. On top of that, it has built-in technology that automatically prioritizes Internet connection for Wi-Fi Calling. This means no matter how you configure the router, cellular packets will always get the first priority over other Wi-Fi and Internet traffic. The best thing about the CellSpot is that it's free to use (after a $25 deposit) for T-Mobile customers. Or you can also buy one for $99. Read the full review of the T-Mobile Personal CellSpot .
Asus AC2400 RT-AC87U
The Asus RT-AC87U is currently the fastest home Wi-Fi router on the market, and it's the only quad-stream router on this list. The router has a top speed of up to 1,733Mbps on the 5GHz band and up to 600Mbps on the 2.4GHz band. It also has an excellent feature set, including a QoS that's very easy to configure. Among other things, you can quickly make voice traffic the top priority for your Internet connection and within your home network. Read the full review of the Asus RT-AC87U .
The Linksys WRT1900AC is a networking powerhouse with firmware that allows you to control and monitor your home network via a Web browser or a smartphone, no matter where you are in the world. The router allows for prioritizing traffic by device, and you can just move the connected smartphone to the top of the priority list to make sure Wi-Fi Calling take the precedence over other types of traffic. Read the full review of the Linksys WRT1900AC .
Netgear Nighthawk AC1900 Smart Wi-Fi R7000
The R7000 is currently the best Wi-Fi router from Netgear. The device has a combined Wi-Fi bandwidth of 1,900Mbps and is also equipped with a robust QoS feature, allowing end-users to set the priority for the Internet traffic. Read the full review of the Netgear R7000 .
The RT-AC68U looks identical to the T-Mobile Personnal CellSpot above. This is because the CellSpot is, in fact, a rebranded version of this . That said, the Asus RT-AC68U has everything the CellSpot has and a few more features, including the support for more guest networks (up to six) and Dual-WAN, which allows the router to work with two Internet providers at the same time. Most importantly, the router also comes with an excellent and easy-to-use QoS feature that prioritizes Internet service for voice services. Read the full review of the Asus RT-AC68U .