A cell phone that can use almost any Wi-Fi network with minimum fuss

By Walter S. Mossberg

Critics of the current US wireless phone system have long advocated for a single phone that could make calls over a variety of wireless networks, without requiring users to jump through hoops.

Well, one of the American phone carriers, T-Mobile USA, has taken a step toward that ideal. It’s offering inexpensive phones that can make voice calls over either the company’s regular cell network or almost any Wi-Fi wireless network, including those inside your homes; open, password-free networks outside your home and T-Mobile’s system of 8,500 US Wi-Fi hot spots in places like Starbucks shops.

These phones can switch seamlessly between Wi-Fi and T-Mobile’s regular cellphone network, even in the middle of a call, without dropping it, so you can just keep talking as you move in and out of Wi-Fi range. For instance, you can start a phone call at work over Wi-Fi, then get in a cab and the call will automatically switch to the T-Mobile cellular network. The process also works in reverse.

Even better, calls conducted over Wi-Fi, or calls that merely begin on Wi-Fi and then switch to the cellphone network in the middle, aren’t counted against your monthly allotment of minutes — no matter how long they use the cellphone network. (Alas, it works the other way as well. Calls begun on the cellphone network do consume minutes, even if they switch in the middle to Wi-Fi.)

Other cellphones have this built-in Wi-Fi, including Apple’s famed iPhone. But in these phones, the Wi-Fi is intended primarily for data use — Internet or email — not voice calls.

I’ve been testing T-Mobile’s new system, called HotSpotAtHome, with a $50 Nokia 6086 flip phone and it works pretty well. I was able to start or finish calls at my home with my existing Wi-Fi setup and use an optional wireless router T-Mobile offers. The system also worked in several Starbucks in different cities, and in several commercial locations with open Wi-Fi service.

In general, my test calls switched seamlessly between the Wi-Fi and cellphone networks, and call quality was good. But in a couple of cases, the calls broke up or were dropped.

Of course, this cool new setup isn’t free. HotSpotAtHome is an add-on feature to a regular T-Mobile calling plan. Through September 25, it costs $10 a month for a single line and $20 for a family plan that covers up to five lines. If you sign up by then, you keep those introductory rates ever after. As of September 26, the monthly fees increase to $20 for a solo line and $30 for the family plan. These are flat fees that don’t vary by how much calling you do.

There are downsides. The only phones available now, the Nokia and a Samsung, are very basic $50 ones with a two-year contract. However, T-Mobile expects to offer more phones. In a few weeks, it will sell a modified version of a sophisticated smart phone. The company refuses to identify the phone, but Web rumour sites suggest it’s a new version of the BlackBerry Curve with Wi-Fi built in.

Another downside: The first two phones don’t work with Wi-Fi networks that require log-in screens, other than T-Mobile’s. So, you can’t use other providers’ networks in hotels, airports and similar places. The phones lack decent Web browsers, and T-Mobile has automated access only to its own hot spots. Future smart phones with better Web browsers should overcome this limitation, but you might have to pay usage fees to the owners of non-T-Mobile networks.

Also, the phones don’t automatically connect to newly encountered Wi-Fi networks, so it takes time to go through the steps necessary to set up the new networks. They do automatically connect to networks used before that you’ve saved.

Also, making calls over Wi-Fi takes more battery life. Talk time on these first phones using the power-hungry technology is only two-thirds what it is on a regular cell network.

Finally, the flat-rate fee for unlimited Wi-Fi calls covers calls only to US phones and doesn’t work from T-Mobile hot spots overseas.

Still, if you have lousy cellphone coverage at home or your office or tend to use a lot of monthly minutes, and you have access to Wi-Fi, the new HotSpotAtHome could be a promising option.

Walter Mossberg writes for The Wall Street Journal

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