Cellphones Make Gains As Home Phones

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New York — A trio of developments points to the growing potential for cellular phones to replace home phones.

Today, carrier T-Mobile launched the BlackBerry Curve, its third Wi-Fi/cellular phone and first smart phone to be compatible with its HotSpot@Home service. The service is based on Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) technology, which requires the use of a Wi-Fi-equipped cellphone to place wireless calls through a Wi-Fi-equipped broadband modem from inside the house.

Last week in Denver and Indianapolis, Sprint Nextel launched the nation’s first commercially available femtocell, a compact cellular base station, which works with any Sprint phone and connects to a broadband Internet connection to improve in-door cellular coverage. Sprint plans to roll out femtocell service nationwide in 2008.

Also in recent weeks, Atlanta-based Wi-EX expanded the distribution of its in-door cellular-signal boosters to the custom-installation channel, launching $399 and $999 hardware packages.

Through the use of different technologies, all three companies want to improve indoor cellular coverage to reduce the number of dropped or missed calls in interior locations where cellular signal strength is low. Improved coverage also extends a phone’s battery life.

 The T-Mobile and Sprint solutions are also meant to reduce wireless-network congestion and include calling plans allowing for unlimited calling within range and without using up cellular minutes. These solutions are available only through the carriers.

At T-Mobile, the Wi-Fi-equipped Curve and two other Wi-Fi-equipped handsets also allow unlimited Wi-Fi calling at around 8,500 T-Mobile HotSpot locations nationwide. When leaving the house or a T-Mobile HotSpot, calls are handed off to T-Mobile’s cellular network, and vice versa.

The Curve, priced at $249 with two-year contract, is available in titanium or pale gold and features 2-megapixel camera, music and video player, microSD card slot and access to personal and corporate email. Web browsing can be accomplished via Wi-Fi or T-Mobile’s EDGE data network.

The other two phones compatible with the T-Mobile service are the Nokia 6086 and Samsung t409, both priced at $49 with two-year contract. Phone prices include a router that’s free after mail-in $50 rebate.

Since its June 27 national rollout, the HotSpot@Home service has been priced at a promotional $9.99 per month for unlimited Wi-Fi calling. The price is expected to rise soon.

At Sprint, the carrier launched the Samsung-made Airave femtocell in select areas of Denver and Indianapolis and plans to roll it out to the rest of the cities and to Nashville this year and nationwide in 2008. Airave is available at Sprint stores for $49.99. Monthly service is $15 per month for individuals and $30 per month for families, plus a subscriber’s regular cellular voice plan.

The 50-milliwatt femtocell, which incorporates 850/1,900MHz CDMA 1x EV-DO cellular technology, communicates via cellular spectrum to a cellphone within a 5,000-square-foot area. Within that range, the phone conversation is routed over an Ethernet-connected broadband modem, traveling via the Internet to a carrier-operated “soft switch” designed by Samsung. The conversation isn’t converted to the VoIP protocol but is converted to a different standard that enables cellular-format voice streams to travel over the Internet. Only registered Sprint handsets can be used with a particular femtocell.

For cellphones operating on any carrier’s 800MHz and 1900MHz networks, Atlanta-based Wi-EX created packages of in-door cellular-signal boosters for the custom home-installation market. Wi-EX’s zBoost solutions improve interior signal coverage but don’t offer automatic hand-off from the in-home base station to a cellular tower. They also don’t require phones to be registered to take advantage of the signal boost.

Typical home-wide zBoost signal boosters increase indoor signal coverage up to 2,500 square and consist of an antenna, base unit, coax cable and mounting bracket. The solutions typically retail for $299 and up. The antenna may be installed inside, near a window or any place that there is a strong cellphone signal. For best reception, the antenna can be installed in the attic or outside. The antenna connects to the base station via coax cable.

The company’s two installer kits are built around the zBoost ProPack booster, which works with 800MHz and 1,900MHz phones. The Standard Kit includes one zBoost ProPack at $395, while the Premium Kit includes three zBoost ProPacks and retails for $999.

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