Last week, without the fanfare associated with another recent mobile telephony product launch, a revolution in mobile communication was launched. T-Mobile, the wireless phone provider once best known for having actress Catherine Zeta-Jones as its spokeswoman, married a cell phone with Wi-Fi (or 801.11g wireless networking) to create what might be one of the first "universal" phones.
For as little as $50 per month, you can get a wireless phone with 300 voice minutes, which works out to 5 hours. Plus, you get unlimited calling, in- and outbound, using any agreeable Wi-Fi "hot spot." T-Mobile has a bunch of these, such as most stand-alone Starbucks coffee outlets, Marriott and Doubletree hotel outlets, some FedEx Kinko's locations, and Borders book stores.
But wait, as they say in the infomercials, there's more: you'll also get a wireless broadband router for your high-speed computer network at home, presuming you have one. Hook up the router to your cable modem and, presto, you've got unlimited calling at home, too.
This new offering, called Hot Spot@Home by T-Mobile, mirrors societal trends. In May, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in the last half of 2006, more than 3 out of every 20 American homes lacked a landline, or traditionally wired, telephone. "Of those homes without a landline telephone, most had at least one working wireless telephone. Preliminary results from [the] NHIS [National Health Interview Survey] suggest that more than one out of every eight American homes (at least 12.8% had only wireless telephones during the second half of 2006," the CDC reported. (In case you're wondering, the agency tracks this stuff because they rely on telephone surveys to determine national health trends.)
T-Mobile is offering the service as an add-on to various wireless plans. You need a special cell phone to take advantage of this, and the company has one from Nokia and another from Samsung; each retails for just under $50 after rebates, and each offers a camera and text messaging features. The firm supplied a Nokia for testing, along with a D-Link branded wireless router. (If you already have a wireless router at home, the phone should work with that; I used it successfully with an Apple AirPort Extreme access point.)
In operation, the phone is a pretty smooth transformer outside a building, you're speaking on the T-Mobile cellular network; inside with a hot spot, you're on WiFi. I noticed no loss of connection or sound quality when making the switch. The phone automatically finds T-Mobile-related access points; others can be configured manually via the phone's settings menu.
Setting up the access point was extremely simple: software is provided for PCs; Mac users can make the necessary setting adjustments from a Web browser and by following the directions on a printed sheet included with the unit. I was up and running on the downstairs Mac in about 15 minutes, and about 10 minutes on an upstairs PC.
While that other new mobile phone, which reportedly sold 500,000 units over the weekend, is an important advance in communications, the Apple, Inc. IPhone doesn't have this voice-over-Internet feature, so far as I know. In fact, no one else has this right now in the U.S. market, as far as can be determined, and that gives T-Mobile an advantage, while giving competitors a challenge.
To have just one phone, one number, that follows us for life is an intriguing idea. The T-Mobile offering is a good first step towards making it a reality, and other carriers would do well to emulate this strategy.
One warning: some corporate Wi-Fi connections are so well secured that the phone wouldn't connect to them. That's a result of the Wi-Fi setup, I'm told, so if you want to use this at work, talk with your computer department.
Details are at T-Mobile stores and www.t-mobile.com. I like the product, and recommend it.