T-Mobile merges Wi-Fi, cellular

T-Mobile USA Inc. is tapping into home broadband to give cellular customers a better deal.

Subscribers to a new service from the Seattle-based mobile operator will be able to make unlimited U.S. calls via Wi-Fi at home and on Wi-Fi networks that don't require a password. Using the same phone, they can leave the range of the Wi-Fi network and keep talking without an interruption as the call shifts over to the T-Mobile cellular network.

The service, called HotSpot @Home, is on the cutting edge of what some observers believe is the future of telephony. It lets users have just one phone and in many cases get better coverage indoors than they do with a pure cellular service. When it comes to high-bandwidth services such as video, Wi-Fi can give a performance boost where it's available. For the operators, it makes more efficient use of expensive cellular capacity and can be part of a "quad-play" service that includes voice, data, video and mobile service.

T-Mobile has launched a site, http://www.theonlyphoneyouneed.com, to promote the service, which so far is available only at 24 stores in the Seattle area. The service costs US$19.99 per month on top of a voice plan priced at $39.99 or higher.

The carrier so far offers a choice of just two dual-mode cellular/Wi-Fi phones for the service: the Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. T709 and the Nokia Corp. 6136. Both cost $49.99 after rebate with a two-year contract and $99.99 with a one-year contract. T-Mobile also provides a home Wi-Fi router free of charge after rebate for users who sign up for a one-year or two-year contract. Those routers, made by either Cisco Systems Inc.'s Linksys division or D-Link Systems Inc., are optimized for voice, said spokesman Tom Harlin.

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