How To: Use UMA WiFi Calling on a Blackberry to Save on Minutes

A dirty little secret that many people don’t know about is a technology called Unlicensed Mobile Access, or UMA, that is offered almost universally on Blackberry phones that support WiFi. OK, let me qualify that statement by saying that the capability for UMA must also be supported by your cell provider. In short, UMA allows you to use standard wireless (WiFi) connections to make & receive calls, send/receive texts, send/receive emails, use BBM, and also use the web. Why is this such a cool feature? Not only does it give you coverage in areas that are otherwise dead zones, it saves on cell minutes. That’s money back in your pocket.

What do you need to get UMA working for your Blackberry? Here’s a shortlist of the ins and outs of UMA on Blackberry:

  • First, you need a provider that support UMA. Only a scattering of providers allow you to use UMA. In the United States, the largest one is TMobile. If you happen to live in the Cincinnati, Ohio area then you also have the option of using Cincinnati Bell Wireless. For our Canadian friends, you can use Rogers or Fido. I personally use Tmobile and have been very happy with it in the Park Ridge, IL area. The coverage may not be as expansive when I travel to rural parts of the state to visit clients, but for the most part, the Chicago and suburban areas are very well covered by the provider. Your results may vary, but I think it’s worth a look.
  • Second, you need a Blackberry that supports WiFi (and UMA in turn). Research in Motion has posted a nice list of WiFi capable Blackberries currently on the market which you can reference. I personally use a Bold 9780 which works extremely well, but the newer 9900 model (and many others) are also on the list. Be mindful that just because a model supports WiFi, it doesn’t necessarily translate into TMobile or your carrier of choice supporting the phone. If you are planning on buying a used model phone, or getting one as a hand me down, call Tmobile in advance to ensure that they currently support that phone on their network. The largest roadblock to a model being allowed on their network is what bands of 2G and 3G it supports – and this varies between models of Blackberry.
  • Third, ensure you ask your provider to enable UMA calling on your plan. At least for TMobile, you need to make an effort to call them and ask that UMA calling be turned on for your plan. It’s painless and easy, but can be overlooked if you are new to the game. Once this is turned on, UMA calls will show as free minutes when you make or receive calls on the network when in a wireless hotspot.
  • A few caveats still exist even with all of the above in place. While you have full control over your wireless box at home, note that some public hotspots (namely ones that require pre-login before you can browse the web on their network) will block UMA capability. There are a few technical details that most home wireless routers already have turned on and open for UMA to work properly; for security reasons, some public places decide to restrict this capability. Your Blackberry will also try to auto-test the connection it is on to see if the internet speed is fast enough to support UMA properly. You’ll know at any time whether your wifi hotspot allows for UMA by checking for this icon on your phone’s upper right hand corner:

Is UMA perfect? No – but what kind of connection on your cell phone is stellar to begin with? Compared to traditional 3G or 4G, I find the call quality to be better over a sufficiently fast connection (3Mbps or faster) and you do not have to worry about drops around every corner. Keep in mind that your home or office wireless coverage will play a part in this as well, and if your phone determines that coverage on WiFi has degraded past a certain point, it will decide to jump back onto the cell carrier’s network on a whim. Most times this transfer works flawlessly; other times, it doesn’t.

UMA is a different kind of beast that when setup properly is a nice way to save money on your phone bill.

If you want to learn more about using UMA on your Blackberry, feel free to check out Research in Motion’s website. Not all cell carrier associates are knowledgeable on the service since it is not widely advertised, but you should be able to reach someone who can tell you more about it at either Tmobile or Cincinnati Bell. Our team at FireLogic has good experience in helping customers with UMA on the Blackberry so feel free to reach out to us if you want assistance in getting this running for your personal (or business) cell phone needs.