A new phone system may herald a more seamless wireless communications experience for users, although the technology has a way to go before its enterprise-ready.
T-Mobile USAs new converged cellular/Wi-Fi phone system, called T-Mobile HotSpot @Home, enables subscribers toting one of the services two supported phones to place calls over regular cellular networks and then roam to thriftier Wi-Fi hot spots as they become available.
Unlike previous handsets that support both Wi-Fi and cellular communications, this is the first that moves seamlessly between the two modes and the first in the United States to do so with carrier support.
While this version, announced June 27, isnt intended for enterprise use, it will work in an enterprise environment. In fact, based on eWEEK Labs tests, the new phones work well enough with existing Wi-Fi networks that theres no reason an enterprise user couldnt walk in off the street, have the phone switch seamlessly and use the phone at work.
We conducted initial tests of the service in our Washington lab network and found that the system functioned perfectly. The fact that the lab network included a firewall and NAT (Network Address Translation) did not adversely affect operations, nor did it require any specialized setup. We tested the service with an existing Wi-Fi network backed by a Linksys 802.11g router.
However, according to officials at T-Mobile, of Bellevue, Wash., the specialized D-Link and Linksys routers the carrier is offering for HotSpot @Home will provide priority for voice calls, conserve battery life on the Samsung t409 and Nokia 6086 handsets that support the service, and let T-Mobile engineers access the access points remotely to help solve problems.
Currently, T-Mobile is offering the unlimited Wi-Fi voice plan for $10 per month for a single line and $20 per month for as many as five lines. The company is offering unlimited Wi-Fi use as part of the package.
Phones for the T-Mobile converged offering cost $50 each with a two-year contract. The specialized routers are offered for free with a mail-in rebate. The cost of the unlimited voice plans is expected to rise, but T-Mobile has not said how long the introductory pricing will last.
While the T-Mobile service appears to work as advertised so far, itll take more than technological promise for this converged offering to storm the enterprise. While T-Mobile is the first U.S. carrier to embrace Wi-Fi/cellular convergence, the company is not yet prepared to target large businesses. Rather, T-Mobile officials said the phones are aimed at individuals in the 18-to-34 age range and for families.
However, considering T-Mobiles aspirations for HotSpot @Home, it wont be long until the converged offering intersects with the enterprise.
“The future of the service is to build this technology into the majority of devices so consumers can have this as an add-on feature,” said T-Mobile spokesperson Peter Dobrow. “That said, this is a new technology and a new service, and as we move forward well see a lot of interest.”
Dobrow declined to discuss T-Mobiles plans to make the jump to enterprise convergence. He did not, however, rule out that it was in the works.
While T-Mobile wont speculate about the use of its convergence technology in business, others arent so shy. Sources familiar with T-Mobiles new offering said its only a matter of time before these products show up in the enterprise arena.
Forrester Research analyst Charles Golvin said he doesnt think T-Mobiles solution will remain strictly a consumer offering for long. “There is tremendous demand from the business community already,” Golvin said. “Enterprises have been crying for dual-mode wireless phones from the carriers for some time. They have wireless LANs; they have big data pipes. When they see employees running around with cell phones, they see money leaking out.”
Golvin said that up to now, carriers havent been willing to offer solutions that are acceptable to most enterprises. He said that something like the T-Mobile convergence solution probably will be acceptable but that a great deal will depend on the enterprise and its specific needs.
“I think its not sufficiently compelling for enterprises to switch over their cell phone service,” Golvin said. “Some small enterprises may be interested in this solution. The offering is limited to these mainstream phones. If its a small enterprise thats not data-dependent, then this is a viable solution.”
Golvin said the biggest shortcoming right now is that T-Mobile isnt offering its converged solution with support for BlackBerrys or other data devices. Although the T-Mobile Dash supports both GSM and Wi-Fi, it will not work with HotSpot @Home, for example.
Other factors may slow adoption of the T-Mobile service, including the need to save on land-line service and to have a broadband connection, Golvin said. He added that getting a DSL connection from carriers might be problematic.
“It might be hard to get the broadband without the phone line,” he said.
Gartner analyst Tole Hart said that while the T-Mobile offering has a few issues that remain to be resolved, he wouldnt be surprised to see HotSpot @Home entering smaller enterprises almost immediately.
Hart cited the limited number of handsets currently offered by T-Mobile as a challenge facing HotSpot @Home. “T-Mobile has offered the most economical choice,” Hart said. “This service might be more attractive a year from now when you can get the handset you want.”
The large-enterprise space, however, will be a harder nut to crack and will require more than a broadened handset repertoire. “The enterprise market is different,” Hart said. “There will be upgrades required in the Wi-Fi market. If you have a system designed for voice, youll be OK.”
Frank Hanzlik, managing director of the Wi-Fi Alliance, in Austin, Texas, welcomed HotSpot @Home and said he hopes more carriers will move in a similar direction.
“Wed certainly like to see it become more pervasive from more carriers,” Hanzlik said. “The benefits of having Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity together are significant. Its really about using the best pipe for the environment and application youre in.”
Hanzlik said the alliance has already certified more than 100 Wi-Fi-capable phones.