Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Overcoming a CDMA smartphone's limitations

A number of pundits have posited that the Verizon iPhone wouldn't gain much traction with current GSM customers because of CDMA's designed-in inability to do voice & data simultaneously. AT&T is trying to play up that aspect of their smartphone lineup (not just the iPhone), while Verizon is playing up the "dropped call" perception that AT&T is suffering.

I'm a longtime, loyal Verizon customer. I have received great coverage and customer support the whole time I've been with them, and I'm not interested in anything that's not on Verizon. So how does one overcome the limitation with CDMA?

With WiFi.

As I understand it, this is the case with all smartphones, not just Verizon's iPhone: if you have WiFi available (and connected), all the data flows through that route, leaving the cellular connection available for calls. That may be fine for home and at the office (assuming WiFi is available), but how do you manage that when out-and-about?

Well, my solution may be a little unorthodox, but I find that it works quite well: I keep a Verizon MiFi in my car, so WiFi is readily available wherever I go.

Yeah, that's a bit crazy, but follow my reasoning, and you may agree that it's "crazy like a fox."

First off, I have a laptop and iPad that don't have cellular network access, so I've made the conscious decision to use a MiFi for them. At the time I purchased the MiFi, I also had an iPod Touch, so that made three devices that could share the one data plan. Brilliant device, the MiFi.

But now that I've traded the iPod for an iPhone, why not cancel the MiFi data plan in exchange for the lower cost of using the Personal Hotspot app? I quickly discovered that there are many disadvantages that come with that decision, most of which stem from Apple's design of the iOS operating system: when using the hotspot app, your iPhone more or less ceases to be a phone.

I don't have any experience with Android, but it may be similar: unless you root your phone, you live with lots of limitation on what it can do concurrently.

So if you decide that you're going to have that dedicated WiFi hotspot, you've just created the situation that will overcome CDMA limitations: Let your smartphone use the MiFi, too. Yeah, it's kind of redundant: using a Verizon MiFi to provide WiFi to a Verizon smartphone: either way—cellular or WiFi—the phone is using Verizon's network.

That's cool. You have access to voice and data simultaneously, even when you're out-and-about. But here's where it gets really interesting: I have no facts to back this up, but it has been my experience that the MiFi does a better job of maintaining data connections when traveling in the hinterlands and low-coverage areas. I routinely travel in places where my phone (both Blackberry and iPhone) goes into low/no data modes while the MiFi happily runs as if nothing had changed. It is my theory that when the carrier provisions a data-only device like the MiFi, it has the option to favor data over voice for the signal usage, where a phone will always be provisioned to prioritize voice over data. When in those coverage areas, I find that my CDMA phone is no better or worse than in good coverage: the data and calls still get through.

So there you have it: Get a dedicated personal hotspot, and your CDMA smartphone—not to mention any other WiFi-only devices—will always have access to data, even when you're on a call.

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