—Living in a bomb shelter, & how I wish more wireless carriers would embrace UMA

February 29, 2012

When I got my first BlackBerry, countless years ago, one of the features the annoying sales rep was trying to push was that Hotspot@Home garbage. You know, where T-Mobile (I guess I’m outing myself) gives you a wireless router and you use it to make “unlimited” Wi-Fi calls in your home, and on your handset for an additional $10/month fee. Little did he know I did my reading and knew that I didn’t need that BS. The Curve 8900 came with the UMA feature that let’s you connect to T-Mobile’s services from ANY Wi-Fi connection that supported it. Yea sure it would use my monthly minute allotment, but I was planning to join the cheapskate “MyFavs + Google Voice = Unlimited Calling plan. Suckers.It was a really neat feature. Basically if you’re on a call where your coverage leaves much to be desired and there’s Wi-Fi, you can have the call switch over to UMA. It’s pretty much using the internet to connect to T-Mobile’s voice and data services. And to RIM’s credit, it did this rather smoothly most of the time. There would be a slight pause as things were switched over, but most importantly your call wasn’t dropped. I live in one of those post-war bunker buildings so my reception is horrible. And since I was unable to get T-Mobile to spring for a femtocell, this filled that coverage gap quite nicely. I also used it at work for the dead spots at that location.

Later on I “upgraded” to a Bold 9780, mainly because of the said UMA feature, and the addition of 3G. Around this time I think Android was adopting it more as an app for their T-Mobile line of phones, which didn’t have the same smooth transitioning, but was still pretty useful. Not enough to make me pony up another $200 however. With an upcoming trip overseas I was eager to test this for cheap international calling, but before I left I quickly learned that the 9780 sucked at the handover part of UMA. It dropped my call every time I tried to switch from EDGE or 3G over to UMA. Puzzling. I succeeded in my international calling test though, and was very pleased with the results (and the absence of bill-shock). But I kept wondering, why was T-Mobile keeping UMA so hush-hush? Surely I don’t remember seeing it any official marketing on it, only hearing about it in detailed phone specs on Phone Scoop (another one of my favorite sites).

Over the years I’ve come to rely heavily on UMA for superior connectivity at work and at home. Even out and about if I’m forced to resort to it. I figure it’s a reasonable trade-off in using one of the cheaper wireless providers. It’s also one of the reasons I’m still chained to a BlackBerry. Sure there are superior phones out there with Wi-Fi calling features, most notably using Google Voice somehow, but how many of them are free? Skype isn’t that free. Also, how much more will I have to pay in data fees or more expensive monthly bills for a “better” carrier to let me do something I can already do with UMA right now? It just isn’t worth it to me. I had resigned to wait it out until I found another free alternative to UMA before making another change in my wireless setup, and stopped thinking about UMA (even though I use it everyday). That is, until I read a recent article on The Verge on this very subject. It’s like they were speaking to me.

It’s a wordy article, and I know there are some people out there who don’t like reading long articles (the reasons elude me), but it’s a great read. It lays it all out in about four or five points. Basically it’s a PR thing. Carriers don’t want to admit that their networks suck, so they plod on with their marketing schemes showing nearly solidly colored maps of the USA with their “stellar coverage” areas. It’s a real shame. Wi-Fi calling significantly reduces the strain on mobile networks by offloading that data to the internet, which last time I checked, handles data quite well. Just think of how AT&T could have avoided the embarrassing public realization that their network couldn’t handle the influx of all these allegedly data hungry iPhones? From the read, I learned that UMA is mostly a hardware addition that has to be green-lit by carriers and then phone manufacturers. Which I believe explains why my 8900 was so much better with the hand-offs than my newer 9780. Inference: T-Mobile didn’t want it to work too well going forward.

So it would seem UMA, as a standard, is on its way out. I sincerely hope carriers adopt some form of Wi-Fi calling in the near future because the smartphone revolution is going to seriously test their networks. I honestly don’t think LTE is going to save them when everyone and their grandma are on it choking up the pipes. Who knows, maybe in the future the technology will be available to eliminate carrier congestion without Wi-Fi once and for all. By then hopefully, I’ll be able to fly around the galaxy in a spaceship sitting on a well designed couch staring at a big screen TV.

*chirp* —Rob out.

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