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Businesses Cellphones

Cellphone Start-Ups Handle Calls With Wi-Fi 73

HughPickens.com writes Brian Chen writes in the NYT that two companies, Republic Wireless and FreedomPop, that reduce cellphone costs by relying on strategically placed Wi-Fi routers are at the forefront of a tantalizing communications concept that has proved hard to produce on a big scale, The concept championed by the two little companies in their nationwide services is surprisingly simple. They offer services that rely primarily on Wi-Fi networks, and in areas without Wi-Fi, customers can pull a signal from regular cell towers. "Wi-Fi first is a massive disrupter to the current cost structure of the industry," says Stephen Stokols. "That's going to be a big shock to the carriers." For $5 a month, customers of Republic Wireless can make calls or connect to the Internet solely over Wi-Fi. For $10 a month, they can use both Wi-Fi and a cellular connection from Sprint in Republic's most popular option. Republic Wireless's parent company, Bandwidth.com, a telecommunications provider with about 400 employees, developed a technique to move calls seamlessly between different Wi-Fi networks and cell towers. "You can't pretend these companies are major players by any stretch. But I think their real importance is proof of concept," says Craig Moffett. "They demonstrate just how disruptive a Wi-Fi-first operator can be, and just how much cost they can take out."

In major cities, the Wi-Fi-first network makes sense. People use smartphones frequently while sitting around their offices and apartments, and Wi-Fi can handle the job just fine. But once people start moving around, it is not so simple. The benefit of a cell service is that your phone can switch among multiple towers while you are on the go which wi-fi is not designed to handle. Google may be experimenting with a hybrid approach similar to the small companies'. A person briefed on Google's plans, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the conversations were private, says the company wants to make use of the fiber network it has installed in various cities to create an enormous network of Wi-Fi connections that phones could use to place calls and use apps over the Internet. In areas out of reach, Google's network would switch over to cell towers leased by T-Mobile USA and Sprint. Still many wonder if even the biggest companies could make a Wi-Fi-based phone network work. "There are just so many places where Wi-Fi doesn't reach," says Jan Dawson "and the quality of Wi-Fi that you can find is often subpar."
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Cellphone Start-Ups Handle Calls With Wi-Fi

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  • by Shakrai ( 717556 ) on Monday February 16, 2015 @02:26PM (#49068011) Journal

    Republic Wireless's parent company, Bandwidth.com, a telecommunications provider with about 400 employees, developed a technique to move calls seamlessly between different Wi-Fi networks and cell towers.

    That's been around forever. T-Mobile had this back in 2006 or 2007. It's called Generic Access Network [wikipedia.org]. I played around with it back in the day when T-Mobile gave you unlimited calling if you subscribed to this, they even had a specially branded version of the WRT-54GL called the WRT-54TM [wikipedia.org], which I still have. It apparently did some power saving stuff that the standard WRT54GL didn't implement at the time,ich I'm just standard WMM [wikipedia.org]; it makes for a nice dd-wrt router, since the T-Mobile model had more memory than the standard WRT-54GL, supposedly they requested that so they could add more features down the line. Ultimately they abandoned the concept of free wi-fi calling, there were only three phones that supported it back in the day, though it's my understanding that they still use the same technology so their customers can place calls while traveling aboard without paying roaming rates.

    Anyway, I digress. This reeks of a press release that was issued to generate buzz and stock purchases. Is this what /. has come to? There's nothing new here. These ideas were discussed in the early 2000s and largely moved away from. Voice minutes aren't a significant expense for cellular carriers these days.

    • by Kaenneth ( 82978 )

      I have a T-Mobile phone with Wi-Fi calling; it keeps turning the feature on by itself; and it sucks with dropped calls continually.

      • by Shakrai ( 717556 )

        I had the Nokia flip phone that implemented it back in 2006-2007. The Wi-Fi calling worked great in my experience, seamless handoff back and forth with the macro cellular network; it would even roam between different APs (my employer needed four APs to cover our entire building) without dropping calls. The problem was that Nokia was prone to crashing for other reasons, even with the Wi-Fi turned off, it had very buggy software and I eventually tired of it shutting down for no reason. They had two other p

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by jones_supa ( 887896 )

          The problem was that Nokia was prone to crashing for other reasons, even with the Wi-Fi turned off, it had very buggy software and I eventually tired of it shutting down for no reason.

          That highlights perfectly one of the core reasons why Nokia ultimately failed in the cell phone business (and that started long before the Microsoft merger). The competitors could offer a phone that had a sleek, stable and responsive user interface, unlike Nokia which clinged forever to the crusty Symbian, the "Windows 95" of mobile phone operating systems.

      • I have a T-Mobile phone with Wi-Fi calling; it keeps turning the feature on by itself; and it sucks with dropped calls continually.

        T-Mobile has had this service for years, and it used to work really well. In-call switching between cellular and WiFi, etc..

        My current phone has the same feature, but I can set it to use the cell network if possible and only make calls over WiFi if the cell network isn't available. Because of this setting, I don't use the WiFi calling very much, but it is great for making a

        • I had a phonne that did this; very helpful on campus where, due to instruments/equipment, whatever, you can't cell a cellular signal in many buildings, including the med school, but you can easily get wifi. Now my kid is in college, I signed him up for Republic because hey, he's nearly always around wifi and he can afford the monthly fees.
          • 3 years ago, my son went off to college with a Republic Wireless WiFi phone and subscription (early adopter.) His mother got a Republic Wireless subscription too. The lack of a multi-year contract and the low price were the appealing features to them, and there wasn't much in the way of competition back then for something that included a data plan.

            My observations are as follows:

            • Young people don't use a phone, they use a portable communications and entertainment device. Voice calls are one of multiple c
        • Was in Berlin recently and saw that they had figured out a solution to the modern pay-phone dilemma. Pretty much every pay phone I saw was also a wi-fi hotspot. For example the T-mobile pay phones were also free hotspots for T-mobile subscribers but also sold bandwidth to anyone without a T-mobile SIM. I don't doubt that the telecoms used these strategically to extend coverage and also compete for customers.

          Of course comparing internet/mobile between the US and anywhere else is... well about as stupid as

      • I believe that T-Mobile still charges you for the minutes even if you go over WiFi. That's what I think the fine print at the bottom of their TV advertisements say. I can't exactly read it fast enough when the commercial is playing.
        • No, they never did me. WiFi calling was always free minutes, though they disclaim this in advertising in case they change their mind.

          And WiFi calling worked well for me always. Lucky I guess.

        • by cdrudge ( 68377 )

          It counts against your minutes if you are on a pay-as-you-go non-unlimited plan. For unlimited pre-paid and postpaid plans, they are not counted for billing purposes.

    • This is also the same technology being used to switch voice over LTE calls back to legacy Circuit Switched networks (3G, Edge).
  • Even here in wifi-heavy Portland, OR, you're going to have a hard time finding wifi signals you can glom onto w/o either knowing the WPA2 password, or going through some sort of web-based login screen - especially in the suburbs.

    The second problem will arise when all those wifi WAP owners decide that they don't want their bandwidth sucked down by non-customers and/or other people (for legal liability issues, etc.) This will likely strangle the idea entirely (or some unscrupulous ass like Verizon will offer

    • Every comcast, optimum, and others routers are putting out a pile of SSID's and will authenticate via mac address alone. The vast majority of home and small business users end up using whatever the provider gives them.

      • Dunno about the others, but the Comcast ones require that you be an existing Comcast customer and log in with your user ID before using it.

        • Thats just comcast sucking like usual. My optimum linked devices log into comcast routers (transmitting the optimum SSID next to their own) automatically via the sharing agreement they have.

    • by Shakrai ( 717556 )

      Even here in wifi-heavy Portland, OR, you're going to have a hard time finding wifi signals you can glom onto w/o either knowing the WPA2 password, or going through some sort of web-based login screen - especially in the suburbs.

      That's one of the things I miss about Finland; the lion's share of the public wi-fi networks don't waste your time with a stupid disclaimer/logon webpage. You connect to them, get an IP address, and you're off and running. The only one out of the dozens that I used where I can recall a logon webpage was on OnniBus.

      Add this to the list of things that our sue happy culture has ruined. You'll never see that duplicated here, because some jackass will sue if little orphan Annie uses your hotspot to look at p

    • by skids ( 119237 )

      There's help on the way for that in the form of a standard called 802.11u (and a couple systems implemented on top of that with buzzword-friendly names.) It allows a hotspot provider to advertise multiple authentication mechanisms, so you would just need one account with a central IDP to get on the hotspot. It's already out in enterprise-level gear bought recently enough; the challenge is now for IDPs to take up the mantle and offer a RadSec service, and for those IDPs to work deals with commodity equipme

    • Even here in wifi-heavy Portland, OR, you're going to have a hard time finding wifi signals you can glom onto w/o either knowing the WPA2 password, or going through some sort of web-based login screen - especially in the suburbs.

      The second problem will arise when all those wifi WAP owners decide that they don't want their bandwidth sucked down by non-customers

      The cable companies are hard at work "solving" that problem. They'll turn your home cable modem into a wifi hotspot whether you want to or not.

    • I use republic and I have no such problem. At work, I use a password, and home, I use a password. But it really doesn't matter, Republic charges me $10 per month (maybe $11 or $12 with taxes?) and I still get unlimited calls and texts. If I upgraded to 3G, I'd be paying $25 (I think just under $30 with taxes).

  • So, essentially we get $10/month Sprint access (plus Wi-Fi calling if you're into that sort of thing)?

  • and everyone said they were evil? but when google does the same it's awesome?

    • That entirely depends on how Google plans to implement it. From what I understood, Comcast took routers people already had and created a separate WiFi off of them. With all of the security vulnerabilities in routers these days, who's to say they couldn't gain access to the actual network? Then there's also the question of whether it shares the same external IP address, bandwidth cap, speed, etc.. Plus, if they were to put the public hotspots outside of the home but still attached to their equipment it would

  • by jythie ( 914043 ) on Monday February 16, 2015 @02:35PM (#49068083)
    I am a bit confused here. Are they installing wifi infrastructure linking back to their own network, or at they depending on the consumer to piggy back on random people's base stations?

    I have a hard time picturing wi-fi being all that good for calls since all a cell phone network is, really, is a specialized wi-fi network designed from the ground up to deal with the cell phone use-case. So if they are just spreading base stations around their coverage area then all they are really doing is setting up cheap crappy cell towers, and if they are piggy backing then yeah, it is easy to offer a low price when someone else is picking up the tab, which I can not imagine will last long.
    • by punkr0x ( 945364 )
      I'm confused by this too. Initially I thought as you did, they were setting up access points in heavy traffic areas to supplement Sprint's cell service. But based on the articles it looks like they expect you to connect to your own Wi-Fi networks. At which point I don't understand the $5 a month Wi-Fi only plan at all; couldn't I do the same thing with Google Voice for free?
    • You have to find your own WiFi; your house, Starbucks, McDonald's, etc. If you haven't connected to one, then it falls back to a cell tower. The assumption is the user has a wide variety of hotspots to which the phone is already set to auto connect.

    • by SeaFox ( 739806 )

      I am a bit confused here. Are they installing wifi infrastructure linking back to their own network, or at they depending on the consumer to piggy back on random people's base stations?

      The latter, of course! Why spend money improving your own cellular network or building out wi-fi when you can trick people into using their own internet bandwidth (and leaching off others) to carry their communications.

    • by skids ( 119237 )

      I have a hard time picturing wi-fi being all that good for calls since all a cell phone network is, really, is a specialized wi-fi network designed from the ground up to deal with the cell phone use-case

      Mostly fixed on newer installations and newer clients. Right now the industry is more or less in a holding pattern waiting for older devices to age out and for device producers to stop making crap radios, because if you turn on a lot of the voice quality features (e.g. 11k,11r for seamless roaming and CAC), a lot of clients devices cannot deal. It is getting easier and easier for corporations to design their campus WiFi for phone use because they control which devices the users are using, but for networks

    • by antdude ( 79039 )

      I don't know anyone who's (who is) a Wi-fi.

    • I use Republic and the wifi is more for when you're parked at your house or office (as far as I can tell). I haven't had any problems with it, except if I receive a call right as I'm exiting wifi range it will take about 10 seconds to respond.

  • There are many places where WiFi spectrum is already quite crowded. Big city apartment buildings come to mind. I realize that many companies have been doing public, for-profit hotspots for years. I noted that last year Comcast decided to force a public hotspot onto everyone's Comcast WiFi cable modem/router. So now I have twice as many nearby WiFi networks to deal with. Now Cell Phone companies are looking to place WiFi hotspots all over to augment their cell phone spectrum.

    The thing is that the WiFi s

    • by skids ( 119237 )

      The problem with congestion is mainly due to most of the crap you could buy up until now only haveing a 2.5GHz antenna and even the 5GHz stuff did not support using DFS channels because radar avoidance is tricky stuff to implement. The problem with beacon pollution (too many SSIDs) will be solved by 11u allowing multiple services on the SSID. Eventually you'll be looking at having a single AP in every room, even for living-room setups, but some of them will be built into computers and appliances because t

  • And the quality is horrible even if you find one. This is inevitable. Even if the solution was WiFi first only when I'm at home or the office, it's still a good solution. No more home and office numbers and people calling my cell phone when I'm at my desk. It may not be tomorrow, but this type of solution is overdue. Voice is a low bandwidth application.
    • And at the risk of replying to myself, why does it have to be WiFi only? Why not allow an Ethernet dongle on the phone that also charges. I think that SlimPort devices can do this. Then all I need is good Ethernet managed by somebody competent. Not realistic in a coffee shop, I realize. But at airports, hotels, or offices this would be ubiquitous.
  • by Jodka ( 520060 ) on Monday February 16, 2015 @03:03PM (#49068313)

    from the summary:

    "There are just so many places where Wi-Fi doesn't reach," says Jan Dawson "and the quality of Wi-Fi that you can find is often subpar."

    I bought the Republic first-generation Android Moto X phone about a year ago and have used their 4G/$40.00 a month plan since. The only wireless networks which I connect to are my home network, work network, and free networks in airports and hotels when I travel. Republic will throttle the data rate if I exceed 5GB of cell data usage in one billing period, about a month.

    So now for the million dollar question: Does that work? With only those connection, do I break the caps because too much of my data travels over cell towers instead of wifi? Ya, it works. I never get even close to the caps. Partly this is because the phone is smart about deferring low-priority high-bandwidth tasks until it picks up a wifi network. The big one here is auto synching photo and video to my google photo account. The other thing is my usage pattern is normally not to gobble up a lot of data while in transit because I commute to work by driving. If I were streaming Netflix or Amazon Prime video daily on an Amtrak commute then I might have a problem, depending on how severely they throttle.

    There is more to Republic than just their wifi/cell tower technology: They work really hard not to be assholes about billing. There are no lock-in contracts and amazingly, you can conveniently change your cell plan up to twice a month, from $5.00 wifi-only policy to higher data rates at $10, $25 and $40 per month plans. The amount you are billed never exceeds those limits, regardless of your usage, they just throttle data rates instead of adding more to your bill.

    I have only one gripe: I use my Republic phone with Google Voice and mostly the voice lag was insanely long. Seems to have improved a lot recently though. Not sure if that is attributable to the phone, to Google Voice, or to the two in combination.

    • This closely mirrors my own experience with Republic Wireless. I have been using their Moto G on the $25 a month plan for about a year and it has been flawless. The only wifi networks I use are at home and at the office (and the occasional free wifi at a a coffee shop, hotel, or the like) but that covers something like 70% of my phone usage anyway. I stream Pandora over the cell network every day while commuting to and from work and I have never even come close to data cap. Call hand-offs between wifi and c
    • by Anonymous Coward

      I concur RW has been great for the family. My wife and 2 kids are on the $10/month plan I use the $25/month plan. At work I am on the sprint network all day and web browsing and calls are no different than I had before. My son can stream you-tube on the highway with my phone so no complaints there. Never came close to the 5GB/mo limit. The $10 plans have unlimited text/voice on cell network and unlimited data on wifi. Everybody has been very happy with this. So for $55/mo we have 4 users with unlimited

  • Google WiFi just showed up at the Starbucks around here. Faster, and if this is Google's entre into a mobile play, then seeding the nation with WiFi is a clever idea.

    Starbucks now, then McDonalds, etc, and they will be in business. I would expect lots of retailers could hop on this. And Google gets the first bite of call data.

    Pricing 1, Privacy 0.

  • If there is already a free solution to make calls over WIFI, why should I pay someone 5$ for it. Or maybe this service isn't for me. Maybe it is a "technical ignorance tax". Hey there are even cell phones you can pay 8$/month for now and make calls anywhere without being restricted to wifi.
  • I don't really see how this is "disruptive" to cellular carriers. Couldn't they at some point just start transitioning over to a VoIP service that was data based and as long as the handset had the software capabilities they could just be VoIP whether it was over LTE or loca wifi?

    In theory they could open up a lot of new features this way such as multiple presentation so you could treat any data connected device with a mic and speaker as a phone. I know a lot of modern PBXs can do this now and some VoIP pro

  • by eriks ( 31863 )

    I use a similar solution (formerly using sipdroid) with a free Google Voice number (there are other free or almost free providers too) -- calling is now built into hangouts -- though it's buggy, it does work, and you can have your google voice number forwarded to your mobile number for when you're not connected to wifi.

    It's a clunky solution, but works well enough for me, since I still do 90% of my voice calling on a landline...

  • Cellular reception is lousy in my basement, Wifi however is top notch. It would be REALLY nice if my phone switched to wifi even if it only did it when it was at home.

    For me its not about saving money, its just about working well.

    It could also be a nice feature for traveling etc; I could probably avoid paying for roaming in a lot of situations. (In this case, it would be about saving some money. Roaming is ludicrous.)

    As it is, my carrier (Rogers) does have "Rogers One" which is a voip app that you can use w

  • Personal anecdote here. I signed up for Freedom Pop last year. After three weeks the phone arrived. After using it for five weeks I gave up. Each and every call had drop outs, severe distortion, or a disconnect. Freedom Pop ignored all my email and phone calls about the poor service. I was asked to call different numbers that did not resolve their poor VOIP implementation. The issue is Freedom Pop has a great idea but horrible implementation. I use the phone as a Square register now. Every now and then I ch
  • Yes, my family has 3 1st gen MotoX phones with the RepublicWireless roms. Switch for two reasons: 1) monthly cost for 3 smartphones is running 1/4th the cost of the 3 feature phones we had on sprint 2) both our previous house and the new house were/are cellphone signal holes (the old house in valley at the intersection of 3 different towers way out at the edge of the range, and the new house has radiant barrier roofing).

    With RW, we get good service in the house from the wifi network and yet can still

  • T-Mobile offers Wi-Fi calling, but it sucks.

    Let's say that I want to download something for a few minutes. My call turns to garbage.

    I could theoretically configure my AT&T hardware to prioritize Wi-Fi calling traffic, but there is no insight given by T-Mobile or AT&T into doing that. I'm not wasting my time to save gigantic multinational corporations a few pennies.

  • The other day, I saw a Droid phone on the WM web site for $20 or so and it got me thinking about getting one to play with. In particular, putting a VOIP client like 3CX or CsimpleSIP on it and connecting to my Asterisk server over Wifi. So I went off to WM to ask questions.

    My big question was, can I buy a cheap Droid phone that they sell for their prepaid plans and use the apps without actually buying a plan? Or if I have to buy a plan, can I still use the apps on the phone (and Wifi) after my plan expires?

  • I had a pair of republic phones for awhile. They do work. Mostly. I started with their beta program, and they do switch back and forth between wifi and cellular at low rates, with the idea that you mostly are travelling to and from somewhere over cellular, but at home you most likely are on wifi. Like anything else, if you go to standard places you might set up wifi spots you use, and your phone switches to them automatically where you go.

    It does pretty well. As you're mostly home it's on wifi 99% of

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