T-Mobile Fraud (proprietary WiFi)

By , September 7, 2007

September 7, 2007 — Last week, my wife and I changed our cell-phone service and bought Nokia 6086 phone from T-Mobile, because of their offering of WiFi calling capabilities.

What they told us (and today, telephone sales AND in-store staff repeated this) was that these phones would work with any WiFi router using the 802.11 standards. Our experience was quite different: most of our calls were “dropped,” and we could not reliably connect to our WiFi network.

Yesterday, I paid Comcast $100 to come out and replace our wireless router with a Comcast wireless gateway.

Today, T-Mobile’s “Hot Spot at Home” support staff acknowledged that its implementation of WiFi telephony is non-standard and proprietary. The service will only work reliably with routers which have been specifically designed to implement T-Mobile’s proprietary standard (currently, only LinkSys and d-Link offer such routers). Connections with other WiFi networks are possible, but intermittent at best.

It also turned out that our home lies in a “weak signal” zone for T-Mobile, so that when calls were dropped from WiFi, the phones were usually unable to hop over to a T-Mobile wireless connection, and therefore the calls were dropped. We also found that even when we disabled all wireless networks, our calls were still dropped due to the poor T-Mobile signal. (Of course, the T-Mobile web-site and in-store sales staff both showed maps proclaiming excellent signal strength at our home.)

We’ll be returning the T-Mobile phones and cancelling their “service” later today, once we transfer our phone numbers back to AT&T/Cingular.

Analysis: As a cynic, I’d normally assume that this was simply a “bait and switch” tactic, designed to force more people to buy T-Mobile’s proprietary routers. But there’s more confusing data to consider:

  1. T-Mobile has “rolled out” this service relatively quietly; it’s mostly marketed to people who ask about WiFi. When I called for information, it was hard to get any meaningful data about the service or phones. When I visited the store, the WiFi display was not prominent, and the sales staff emphasized the limitations of the WiFi phones offered.
  2. Strangely, T-Mobile offers only two very limited telephones for use with WiFi — even though most cell-phone makers have designed and shown much more advanced models. (For example, one of the two phones has a 1.3-megapixel camera and no memory-card slot; the other has a 640×480 camera.)
  3. And now, T-Mobile has revealed that its phones use a proprietary variation of WiFi that won’t work reliably with standard 802.11 wireless networks, but only with special routers designed to T-Mobile’s specification.

It appear that T-Mobile wants to alienate customers who want WiFi. Why would this be?

Kill Wifi Telephony: Ah, yes. T-Mobile charges for wireless telephone service, based on “minutes used.” Its financial interests are not well-served by converting customers to free WiFi calling. But its consumers were demanding WiFi, and so it offered a service — not to capture new customers, but in an attempt to “ruin WiFi’s reputation.”

This is reminiscent of the bizarre “electric car” strategy: two automakers (GM/Saturn and Honda) offered electric cars for sale in California, but limited production, set absurdly high pricing and lease restrctions, and suppressed all marketing efforts. Then, when consumers defied expectations and demanded more electric cars, the companies stopped selling them, and when the leases expired, they were repossessed and actually crushed.

The goal: get cell-phone users to say, “Gee, Ma, those WiFi phones just don’t work reliably. They’re crap. We’d better stick with ‘real’ wireless telephone service at much higher rates.”

T-Mobile is engaged in fraudulent misrepresentations when it claims that its WiFi phones will work with standard WiFi networks and routers. It should stop making those misrepresentations, and advise customers that the WiFi phone feature will only work reliably with routers designed specifically for T-Mobile’s proprietary standards. As intended, this makes T-Mobile’s phones less attractive — but without damaging the reputation of WiFi telephony in general.

— Mark J. Welch

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