Originally created 03/27/06

Riding the hotspot with a do-it-your-cell phone

NEW YORK - Americans pay on average $50 per month for cell-phone service, yet there are free wireless hotspots in lots of places.

How about using them for your calling instead? I gave three approaches a try, and although none of them is going to make me ditch my cell phone in a hurry, they show that with a little development, Wi-Fi can definitely compete.

Wi-Fi calling isn't exactly new: Wi-Fi telephones and walkie-talkie-like "communicators" have been available for offices and hospitals for years through companies like Vocera Communications Inc. and SpectraLink Corp.

It works like standard Internet-based phone service - in which voice calls are broken into data packets just like e-mail, sent over the Internet and reassembled as sound at the recipient's end - except calls go over wireless Wi-Fi connections.

But until recently, consumer options have been limited. A few months ago, Internet telephone company Vonage Holdings Corp. started selling a Wi-Fi handset, the UTStarcom F1000, for $80. Competitor BroadVoice sells the same phone for $100.

I tested the UTStarcom phone with Vonage service and compared it with two software programs for Wi-Fi calling on a handheld computer.

UTStarcom's handset is not for the style-conscious: It looks like a cell phone from the mid- to late 90s. With a monochrome LCD screen and a battery cover that barely closes, it sends a message of "cheap."

The handset was the easiest voice-over-Wi-Fi option, but only barely. It's difficult to control which hotspot it connects to, and it often fails to connect until it's turned off and back on. If you're using it with same hotspot all the time, more or less like a home cordless phone, it works fine, but that kind of misses the point.

(That said, none of these services will let you roam from hotspot to hotspot while staying on a call, unlike the way cell phones automatically switch relay stations as you move).

The most serious shortcoming is the lack of a Web browser. That means most for-pay hotspots and even many free ones are unusable, because they require that users to log in or confirm agreement to usage terms. Completely open hotspots or encrypted ones for which you have the key are the only option.

Nonetheless, call quality is generally good, and the interface is reasonably familiar.

You may need to be more of a techie to turn your personal digital assistant into a Wi-Fi phone. I installed SJPhone, a free program from SJ Labs, on my Dell Axim X3, a PDA that runs Microsoft Pocket PC 2003. Dell sells an updated version of the Axim, also with built-in Wi-Fi, for $319.

SJPhone is designed to work with any Internet phone service, but getting there is another matter. To use it with Vonage, you need to add a "SoftPhone" option to your account, which costs $10 a month beyond the regular monthly cost of $15 and up. The SoftPhone account comes with a separate number.

You'll also likely need help from Vonage technical support to configure the SJPhone software (Hint: The proxy domain and user domain need to be set to sphone.vopr.vonage.net, and the port should be 5061).

Once that's done, though, this do-it-yourself cell phone works pretty well. The PDA's built-in browser opens up hotspots inaccessible to the UTStarcom phone.

Incoming sound quality was good in my test, though the people I called complained of background noise, probably because I was using the PDA's built-in microphone.

Also, sound quality declined when I used up the hotspot's bandwidth with a file transfer to my laptop. Companies are working on implementing a system for giving voice calls priority over other Wi-Fi traffic.

As the third option, I set up my PDA with Skype, a free text and voice-messaging program. No adjustment to the settings was needed; I found Skype easier to use than SJPhone, though not as easy as the handset.

As with SJPhone, there are Windows and Mac versions of Skype, so you could use a laptop with Wi-Fi instead of a PDA.

When I called another Skype user, which is free, the sound quality was astounding - better than you would get from a landline or cell-phone call.

To call a regular phone number, you need to set up a SkypeOut account and pay 2 cents a minute for calls to the United States and Europe. It costs $38 a year to get a phone number associated with your Skype account so people can call you from telephones. In my test, calls to phones had acceptable but relatively poor sound quality.

The main problem with using SJPhone or Skype was the PDA's tendency to turn off the Wi-Fi connection to conserve power, meaning I'd miss incoming calls.

Clearly, none of the voice-over Wi-Fi options I tested are suitable as a replacement for a cell phone, but they aren't bad as a supplement. A business traveler could, for instance, use Skype or SJPhone for cheap calls from a hotel, many of which provide free Wi-Fi. The UTStarcom phone could replace a cordless home phone.

Wi-Fi calling is still at a pretty early stage. Coming soon are cell phones with something called Unlicensed Mobile Access. In essence, they will use Wi-Fi when it's available, but hand over to cellular networks if the user leaves the hotspot.

This is certainly an attractive prospect for those of us who have poor reception at home. And of course, we'll want to make sure the cell-phone carrier doesn't make us pay full rate when we're using our own hotspot. In the mean time, Skype is the cheapest way to try out Wi-Fi calling, and it's reasonably easy.

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