Mobility Loop

 

Originally published by Mobility Loop.

Reposted with permission.

Copyright 2006 Core Competence Inc.

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Taking VoWiFi on the road: Vonage UTStarcom F1000

 

 

 

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Written by Lisa Phifer   

PhiferAs Wi-Fi fan and Vonage convert, I'd like a VoWiFi phone that's both convenient and mobile. So, when Vonage started shipping UTStarcom's F1000 Wi-Fi Phone last month, I took it for a short test drive. As promised in December, here are my initial impressions of this cute little handset...

I was initially attracted to the F1000 because, at just 108 x 44 x 24 mm and 100g, this compact VoIP-over-802.11b phone looks and feels like a cell phone. Using the F1000 requires a Vonage account, but at $14.99 per month for 500 minutes (or $24.99 unlimited), we're talking at least 50% less than my cellular plan. Better yet, Vonage doesn't shackle me with an annual service contract -- an important consideration when trying new technologies.

But the F1000 is not a cell phone replacement. Yes, it has a cellular-style keypad, monochrome display, phonebook, calendar, alarm, calculator, ring profiles, and headset jack. And I can place and receive calls just as I would with my cell. But I can only do so when I'm near an 802.11 AP that meets defined requirements (below). Unfortunately, I found suitable public APs surprisingly rare. Ultimately, I found the F1000 more useful at home, where it proved smaller than my cordless handset, and clearer than my cell. Travelers who talk a lot while sitting still may like the F1000. But mobile professionals who make calls on-the-go should stick to their cell phones.

The fine print

To appreciate why, let's explore those AP requirements. First, it should be obvious that one 802.11b/g AP's coverage is tiny compared to a cellular serving area. The F1000's Wi-Fi receiver is reasonably sensitive -- I frequently connected to indoor APs from nearby streets. But roaming from AP to AP requires re-association, followed by re-registration between the F1000 and Vonage -- a process that can last up to three minutes. So you should expect to use this phone while sitting in a coffee shop, not while walking down the street.

Second, connectivity depends on security -- or lack thereof. I was pleased to find that the F1000 supports WEP and WPA-PSK airlink encryption. Profiles, configured through the phone's keypad or a web management interface, define the security mode and keys used by four SSIDs. Using the F1000 with a home or office WLAN requires compatibility with your security policy and APs. For example, the F1000 cannot be used with enterprise WLANs that require 802.1X or WPA2. In my experience, WPA-PSK worked intermittently, just about half the time. When I sniffed traffic, I could see the F1000 successfully probing but never even attempting to associate with those APs.

On the other hand, the F1000 had no trouble whatsoever connecting to dozens of APs in open mode. In fact, the F1000 automatically tries to associate with any nearby open AP when operating in "auto scan" mode. If you want the F1000 to associate only to configured SSIDs, you must disable auto scan -- doing so also preserves battery life.

The catch: every single wireless association must be followed by Vonage server registration before you can place or receive calls. Since the F1000 lacks a browser, it is not possible to log into hotspot web portals to gain Internet access when required to reach the Vonage server. Therefore, this phone can only be used at hotspots that do not require portal login of any kind. This eliminates all commercial hotspots, and free hotspots that display mandatory Welcome or Terms of Service pages. A Vonage website FAQ recommends using search engines like www.jwire.com, www.wifinder.com, www.wififreespot.com, www.hotspothaven.com, or www.wi-fihotspotlist.com to locate free hotspots. Depending upon where you travel, you may have more luck than I did. Frankly, finding unsecured residential APs is an order of magnitude easier, although borrowing Wi-Fi service without the owner's permission is clearly not advisable.

F1000 profiles cannot be deleted; they can only be over-written, and I found this a bit clunky. To reduce delay and battery drain, immediately over-write any profile SSID that proves unusable (e.g., commercial hotspot SSIDs). Otherwise, your phone will keep associating anytime you're near that SSID, retrying for three minutes before moving on. Also, to deter accidental associations, don't add common SSIDs to your profiles. For example, I used a coffee shop's public "linksys" AP before taking the F1000 on a road trip. The phone valiantly tried to associate with many other Linksys APs before I noticed my mistake.

When registration was successful, the F1000 worked like a champ. Battery life, which I had expected to be modest, was actually pretty good. Scanning for APs does eat power, but I made one call that lasted nearly 6 hours. During ad hoc, completely subjective tests, call completion rate and voice quality were impressive. When I used the F1000 and a cell phone to place back-to-back calls from a given location, those whom I called found the F1000 softer but just as clear as my cell -- sometimes better. While I could wave my arms about and pace a little bit without experiencing call degradation, it was necessary to stay within a single AP's footprint.

The bottom line

Consider the F1000 if you want one small, portable Vonage handset to carry around your wireless-enabled small office or home. In that environment, overhead time spent configuring and registering will be tiny compared to time spent productively making and receiving calls. While you can take this phone with you when you travel, don't expect to find suitable APs quickly or without effort. To that end, I would love to see UTStarcom add a "kill" button to easily cancel unwanted associations, and a micro-browser that enables portal login for much broader hotspot use.