HolidayBuyer's Guide

T-Mobile callers can go from cell to Wi-Fi, only in Seattle

New service allows consumers to conserve their cell phone minutes while within some hot spots.

T-Mobile USA on Monday began offering a service that allows people to use their mobile phones to talk over T-Mobile's cellular network as well as Wi-Fi networks.

The new service, called T-Mobile HotSpot @Home, is currently available only in Seattle.

Expected to launch in September, the service is the first of its kind in the U.S. It will likely be viewed as a test case by other operators also considering launching a similar service. Sprint Nextel, through its joint venture with four major cable companies, is also looking into developing a similar service. And Cingular is testing a service in its labs.

The benefit of the T-Mobile service for consumers is that it allows them to conserve their cell phone minutes while they are within one of T-Mobile's hot spots or when they are within range of any other Wi-Fi hot spot that doesn't require authentication.

The phone automatically detects Wi-Fi hot spots and uses a technology called unlicensed mobile access, or UMA, to seamlessly switch calls to the Wi-Fi network from the cellular network. The hand-off is so smooth, that users don't even know they've been switched to a different network, said Peter Dobrow, a spokesman for the company.

Just like with VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) services from companies like Vonage, T-Mobile callers will be able to talk as long as they like to anyone in the U.S. for a flat monthly fee while they are chatting over the Wi-Fi network.

Consumers can buy special voice over Wi-Fi enabled handsets and sign up for the service at retail store locations in the Seattle area. They can also sign up on T-Mobile's Web site at www.theonlyphoneyouneed.com.

T-Mobile is offering two handsets to be used with the service: the Nokia 6136 and the Samsung T709. Each phone costs $49.99 with a two-year contract or $99 with a one-year contract. While the service works with any standard Wi-Fi router, T-Mobile is offering a D-Link Wi-Fi router optimized for the service. The routers are free with a mail-in rebate.

To activate the service, consumers must have a "qualified" T-Mobile voice plan, which starts at $39.99. The Wi-Fi functionality costs an additional $19.99 a month.

T-Mobile has been testing the service since August in a controlled trial in Seattle with a few hundred users. The company would not say how long it expects the Seattle pilot program to last or what its plans are for expanding the service.

T-Mobile, owned by Deutsche Telekom in Germany, also recently bought $4.2 billion worth of spectrum licenses through the Federal Communications Commission's auction, which will double its capacity in the top 100 markets in the U.S. The company plans to spend another $2.66 billion in the next few years using that spectrum to upgrade its 2.5G cellular network to 3G technology so that it can compete with the other three major U.S. carriers: Cingular Wireless, Sprint Nextel and Verizon Wireless.

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