T-Mobile: WiFi-Cellular Launch In September

T-Mobile plans to launch a Wi-Fi-cellular converged phone service in Seattle and potentially one other market next month on September 12th, sources say. More markets will follow soon after. The city of Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area are the likely candidates for a possible rollout.

T-Mobile’s converged service is based on a standard called Unlicensed Mobile Access, popularly known by its acronym, UMA. The news that T-Mobile has been doing trials of services using the wireless convergence standard UMA have been slowly coming to light. Business Week points out a service targeted at in-home cell phone users called T-Mobile-At-Home, which seems like UMA, but the article doesn’t name the standard. Engadget had also posted information about the UMA trial.

We’ll see if T-Mobile can meet its planned launch date, but the company is eager to start deploying UMA given it can not only take a piece of in-home calls, but can also use UMA to handoff in its thousands of T-Mobile WiFi hotspots. UMA is a standard that enables the handoff of calls between cellular (GSM only) and unlicensed wireless like WiFi.

More than any other carrier in the U.S. T-Mobile has the incentive to use UMA — it ranks behind the top 3 U.S. carriers, only reported 613,000 net new customers for the second quarter of this year, and owns valuable WiFi real estate that it can use to grow those subscribers. The company would only confirm that UMA is one of the technologies that the company believes will help replace landline calls.

We’re not sure when T-Mobile will target any of its UMA services beyond what seems like an initial in-home calling launch, but adding hotspot coverage could be its trump card.

What exactly is UMA? It’s an international standard that has been in development for years by a consortium of carriers and companies. The technology works with both bluetooth and WiFi and uses dual-mode phones to roam between WiFi and cellular networks. Deployment of wide-reaching UMA services require UMA infrastructure in the network that companies like Alcatel, Nokia, Kineto Wireless, Motorola and Ericsson provide, as well as UMA software on dual-mode handsets developed by Motorola, Nokia, and Kineto.

Other companies have been trying to figure out the best way to handoff between various networks, and we pointed out startups like Divitas last month, but carriers are just starting to turn to UMA to solve the problem. Telecom Italia could launch a UMA service as early as the Fall, and TeliaSonera is considering UMA as well. In a major win for UMA, Orange is rumored to be choosing the option, though hasn’t announced its decision publicly. It’s not too hard to see why GSM carriers would opt for UMA.

As voice becomes even more of a commodity service and use of data services grows, the carriers all know that they need to adopt converged network services and offer easier ways to roam across networks. Most carriers are terrified of losing some of the revenues from cellular voice calls to cheaper WiFi voice calls, but as WiFi and other wireless networks grow, there is really no way around it. And because T-Mobile has been working on WiFi hotspots for years, it has a head start in this market. For the carriers that don’t have WiFi assets, UMA also gives the carrier a modicum of control as it makes this transition. Andrew Schmitt also points out how this gives the carriers a head start in the battle for the home with cable operators.

The carriers are so concerned about using UMA to control this shift, that likely UMA services won’t be able to handoff onto disruptive city-wide WiFi networks for quite some time. Handsets will likely be pre-programmed to roam onto approved WiFi networks only, and say, for subscribers living in a city like Mountain View, CA, with its city-wide Google WiFi network, why would a carrier agree to help switch all its customer’s calls onto a city-wide WiFi network?

It won’t, at least not for a really long time. This will likely be a major story going forward, and probably one of the reasons T-Mobile is launching its first UMA network targeted at in-home users only.