T-Mobile Hotspot @ Home Troubles

I spend hours at a time on conference calls, which can be problematic since I’ve only got a cell phone. Those 3 hour support calls with clients can really gobble up those minutes. I had been running Vonage, but that just didn’t work on so many different levels. In fact, the only solution I’d found up until this point was just to keep upping my minute plans; only trouble was that it required a renewal of my contract. Ugh.

Suddenly, I’m talking with my T-Mobile rep and he’s telling me about this Hotspot @ Home service that lets you make free, unlimited calls over a wireless network that will seamlessly transfer to cell towers when the wifi signal is gone. Pure genius. I dropped my minutes and signed up for this add-on service ($30/month more, comparable to the money saved by dropping minutes).

All was well, until the router started dropping my calls. Often. This was extremely puzzling and frustrating, especially since I’ve read nothing but rave reviews for the service all over the place. I’d answer the phone and I couldn’t hear the person on the other end, even though they could hear me. I’d constantly have to the phone off and back on again. Often it stated the security code was wrong even though it worked again 5 minutes later. Sometimes, I’d even be in the middle of a phone call and it would just turn off completely, without warning—up to 7 or 8 times a day. Completely unacceptable, especially with a business.

At first, I thought my problems came from not getting their T-Mobile router. But most reviewers said that it wasn’t necessary. After all, it can run on any wifi connection. And I was running a Linksys wireless router that looked virtually the same as they one they were selling.

But after a little research, I discovered that I was running the Linksys WRK54G, an “economy” version of their famous blue-black router with a reduced chipset and less memory that’s prone to locking up and needing to be rebooted. Turns out that you can’t even install third-party firmware (like Polarcloud’s Tomato) onto it. In a nutshell, I had a lousy router.

So I went back to the T-Mobile store and picked up their router. I checked the product version on it: WRT54G-TM, which is actually just a custom T-Mobile off-shoot of their beefy WRT54G line. In fact, a little forum diving revealed that most hackers are ga-ga over the new TM model because it’s got a whopping 32MB of RAM and 8MB of flash ROM. Unfortunately, it’s got built-in protection against third-party firmware… if you try to upload something like Tomato or dd-wrt, it pulls a backup from the flash memory and resets everything to defaults. The only way to get around this and install your own custom firmware is to actually create a jtag cable that you solder in to clear the flash out to prevent it from reseting to the default (though there is talk of a non-jtag solution).

All of that to say, this is a much heftier router; there’s nothing magic about the fact that T-Mobile is offering it. It simply automates the process of connecting to your phone instead of needing to set it up manually. However, I’ve not had any reset problems since buying the new router (which is basically free with a rebate from T-Mobile), and I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that the WRT54GT line puts out a stronger signal and has much more reliable uptime. The only trouble I had was forgetting to reboot my phone after setting it up with the network.

In the end, the service wasn’t really to blame. A router with a weak signal that couldn’t stay connected was the real culprit. Hopefully, this helps save some people time and frustration. I’ll be sure to keep this entry updated if I discover anything more.