T-Mobile is set to announce a new device that will purportedly offer “full-bar” coverage for your home, even in areas that offer little or no tower-based cellular signal. The “4G LTE Cellspot” plugs into your home’s router and uses your internet connection to provide the cellular connection you may be lacking. To make this even more enticing, T-Mobile is offering this device free of charge ($25 deposit required) for all post-paid (as opposed to pre-paid) customers. Suspicious yet of this gift-horse? Good for you if you spotted the hitch.
Here comes the sucker punch:
The self-proclaimed “un-carrier” isn’t the first to offer this sort of device: ATT, Verizon and Sprint all have similar devices, with one glaring exception: you can’t limit who has access to the T-Mobile device plugged into your router and using your bandwidth. This might not be a problem for those blessed with larger homes or big yards, but the Cellspot is designed to boost signal for any T-Mobile device within 3000 square feet. The device works by routing cellular calls (and data) via your internet bandwidth, which may or may not be capped, depending on your provider. Translation: any T-Mobile device, yours or a complete stranger’s, will consume bandwidth on your dime. On top of this, any data bandwidth transmitted via this device still counts towards your bandwidth limit (if you have one), even though you aren’t technically using T-Mobile’s infrastructure to transmit that data. All of sudden, that device ain’t looking so “free” anymore, eh? All said, if you are among the unfortunate who suffer from poor cellular coverage in your home or office and rely heavily on your T-Mobile cellphone, and you have the fortune of having plentiful broadband coverage (with no bandwidth caps) this device might be the ticket to glorious full-bar coverage. Caveat emptor, and always beware carriers bearing “gifts”.
Depending on where you live or work, you’ve probably experienced problems with cellphone coverage for one or more carriers, usually due to your geographical (lack of) proximity to a cell tower, or courtesy of construction materials like concrete, lead and steel in between you and your signal. Thanks to the advent of widely available broadband, cellular providers have been able to build small devices called femtocells that can be connected to your internet connection and will significantly improve cellular signal for a specific carrier in a limited range.
While seen as a godsend for the cell-strength deficient, we also now have to regard them as a security risk, thanks to research performed by analysts at iSEC Partners who have allegedly hacked a Verizon network extender to allow them to eavesdrop on any phone call, text message or other information transmitted from the phone through the compromised femtocell. The researchers plan to publicize their findings at the upcoming Black Hat Conference in August, but have declined to share details for obvious security reasons.
What this means for you:
Unfortunately, you can’t tell your cellphone what radio signal source to use. It’s designed to look for the strongest signal and use it. The iSEC researchers claim it would be trivial to build a portable and unobtrusive hacked network extender and place it in a strategic location to capture confidential calls. If you are in the business of confidential information, you probably already know not to take sensitive calls where ever you might be overheard, and if you are a well-informed adult, you probably already know that the NSA could eavesdrop on your conversation regardless of what cell tower was handling your call. But now we are talking about a commercially available device that is cheap, portable, and apparently, hackable. As before, consider carefully the medium you choose for the delivery of your sensitive information, and when in doubt, err on the side of caution rather than convenience.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
In a move that is strongly reflective of its overseas ownership, T-Mobile has announced that its customers now have the option to purchase cellular services without having to commit to a contract. Unlike the US, a large majority of European and Asian cell phone subscribers routinely purchase cell phone services on a monthly basis as opposed to the 1 and 2-year contracts familiar to most Americans. T-Mobiles new pre-paid plans start at $50/month for unlimited voice, texting and data, with a couple of small catches: data may be unlimited, but access to T-Mobile’s high-speed data network is capped at 500MB for the $50 plan (Increased to 2GB for $60, and truly unlimited for $70/month). The other gotcha? Pre-paid plans will no longer subsidize the cost of expensive phones that can be gotten for “free” with 2-year contracts, at least not in the manner with which you may be familiar.
What this means for you:
Of the major carriers in the US, T-Mobile is in fourth place in terms of market, and they trail third-place carrier Sprint by a large margin. Lacking the marketing muscle to go head to head with Verizon and AT&T, T-Mobile is attempting to disrupt the US market by offering plans that are common-place and popular overseas, but still relatively untested in the US. Many analysts believe that the US cellular market will grow to mirror its overseas counterparts, but that convergence is still at least 2-4 years away.
One of the key differences in T-Mobile’s plan is how they plan to allow consumers to still “subsidize” the cost of new phones. In a traditional 2-year plan as offered by the major carriers, the cost of a new phone is incorporated into the monthly subscription fee, and presumably at a rate that pays off the phone in two years time. T-Mobile offers a similar deal with their pre-paid plan, but instead of offering a single monthly amount, they actually break out the cost of the monthly payment for your new phone.
Why is this important? With T-Mobile, once you have finished paying off the phone (which can be done on their 2-year schedule, or sooner should you decide to just buy out the remaining balance), your monthly bill will be reduced to just the amount owed for services. With the traditional contract offered by the big carriers, your monthly bill will stay the same even though you have paid off your phone. This is no big deal if you decide to switch carriers, but they are banking on the fact that you might not. So far, this has paid off, given the popularity of this type of contract, but maybe T-Mobile can bring disrupt enough of the market to put some strain on the Verizon/AT&T duopoly in place in the US.
(Full disclosure: I’m a T-Mobile customer on 2-year contract, paying down my brand-new Nexus 4. I’m paying approximately $80/month which includes a monthly payment of $20 for my phone.)
Since its release last month, Apple has been fielding numerous complaints about wifi issues on the new iPhone 5. It’s not uncommon for manufacturers to sit tight during the first wave of complaints to see if there is any merit to them, or if they are just a combination of user-error and settling-in that always appears in new product launches. New customers were complaining of poor performance during the initial weeks of the iPhone 5’s arrival, and now that the first month’s bills are rolling in, these same customers have uncovered what looks to be a serious bug on the Verizon version of the the iPhone 5: instead of using an existing wifi connection to deliver data to the phone, iOS 6 (the operating system powering the iPhone 5) will instead continue to use the cellular connection, chewing up the monthly data allotment at an alarming rate.
Apple admitted the existence of the bug through a software update released on September 30, and Verizon has stated that no one will be charged for “unwarranted data usage” that might have occurred from this bug.
What this means for you:
If you’ve recently purchased an iPhone 5 or have upgraded your older iPhone 4 to iOS 6, and Verizon is your carrier, keep a close eye on your data usage and look for any unusual spikes in your monthly usage average. Reports are mixed as to whether this problem affects any other model other than the iPhone 5. Watch for the alert to patch your phone, and accept the update as soon as you see it. To check your cellular data usage on your iPhone: Settings->General->Usage->Cellular Usage.