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Why Unlocked Phones Don't Work In the US 442

schnell writes "Unlocked cellular devices have long been a part of the wireless landscape in Europe and elsewhere. But longtime industry analyst Andrew Seybold explains why that model doesn't work in the US due to technology and frequency differences, and why LTE adoption may not make things any better."
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Why Unlocked Phones Don't Work In the US

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  • by Potor ( 658520 ) <farker1@gmai l . c om> on Thursday November 11, 2010 @10:20PM (#34203284) Journal

    Indeed. I use an unlocked tri-band GSM phone about half the year in Europe, and the same phone about half the year in the States. Also T-Mobile in the States, and strictly prepaid on either continent.

    Could not be simpler. I tape the SIM card not being used on the back of my passport.

  • Uh... (Score:3, Informative)

    by oldhack ( 1037484 ) on Thursday November 11, 2010 @10:26PM (#34203314)

    My 4-band Nokia GSM phone worked fine with AT&T and T-Mobile.

    Well, I basically just make voice calls, so maybe that's the issue...

  • Works for me (Score:3, Informative)

    by Iphtashu Fitz ( 263795 ) on Thursday November 11, 2010 @10:28PM (#34203324)

    I used to have a Motorola quad-band GSM phone on AT&T. I unlocked it so I could bring it to Australia and New Zealand when I went there a few years ago. Worked absolutely fine for me. I still keep the phone handy for if/when I travel abroad in the future.

  • Spectrum issue (Score:5, Informative)

    by thogard ( 43403 ) on Thursday November 11, 2010 @10:33PM (#34203350) Homepage

    NATO split up the spectrum after WWII so that European military radios were on the US civilian frequencies and vice versa. The reason was so the US military could take its radios into Europe and use their default channels and not conflict with the allied military radios that were already there.

  • Most of the phones I've ever owned have been unlocked, purchased direct from Nokia.

    For one thing, only T-Mobile has a discount for bringing your own unlocked phone rather than taking one of the subsidized phones. AT&T has no counterpart to T-Mobile's "Even More Plus" plans [t-mobile.com] that knock $10/mo off voice or $20/mo off voice+data for purchasing the handset and SIM separately. But other Slashdot users appear to be of the opinion that T-Mobile has the worst coverage among the big four. For another, before I buy an N900 phone from Nokia, I want to know whether I will like it so that I'm not out $80 for return shipping and restocking fees for a phone that I turn out not to like.

  • Re:Yeah right. (Score:5, Informative)

    by h4rr4r ( 612664 ) on Thursday November 11, 2010 @10:42PM (#34203416)

    Galaxy line uses micro USB.

  • by mmj638 ( 905944 ) on Thursday November 11, 2010 @10:45PM (#34203440)

    No, Samsung use them.

    According to w'pedia:

    As of January 30, 2009 Micro-USB has been accepted by almost all cell phone manufacturers as the standard charging port (including HTC, Motorola, Nokia, LG, Hewlett-Packard, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, Research In Motion) in the EU and most of the world. Worldwide conversion to the new cellphone charging standard is expected to be completed between 2010 to 2012.

  • Re:Yeah right. (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 11, 2010 @10:47PM (#34203456)

    Not true. Samsung Galaxy S is micro USB

  • Re:Why should they? (Score:5, Informative)

    by turbidostato ( 878842 ) on Thursday November 11, 2010 @10:55PM (#34203498)

    "When the dominant model is to buy the phone with the plan"

    Have you thought that it might be the case that that's the dominant model because that's all the telcos offer?

    Nobody is telling that telcos should gift away expensive smartphones but that you should be able to choose between a locked subsidized mobile with a data plan *or* a cheaper data plan without the mobile.

  • Re:Yeah right. (Score:3, Informative)

    by h4rr4r ( 612664 ) on Thursday November 11, 2010 @10:56PM (#34203502)

    Micro- USB has only A and B variants. No one uses A for phones, it is only used for Usb On-The-Go.

    All phone makers I know of other than Apple have switched to Micro-B USB.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 11, 2010 @10:57PM (#34203506)

    I only use unlocked phones and prepaid plans, T-Mobile, PagePlus mostly. It can be done. There are plenty of unlocked phones available on NewEgg, Dell, Amazon, and Craigslist.

    If you're willing to come to Canada you can purchase unlocked iPhones from any Apple store. Not sure about warranty coverage of a "Canadian" device in the US though--a lot of manufacturers are sticky about that, NAFTA be damned.

  • Re:Yeah right. (Score:5, Informative)

    by MoonBuggy ( 611105 ) on Thursday November 11, 2010 @10:57PM (#34203510) Journal

    I know it's against Slashdot tradition, but I'd recommend that you RTFA. The summary gave me the same impression - that it would be some corporate fluff piece about how it's a good thing that the networks are screwing you - but the article itself is actually a very well reasoned technical explanation of the various bits of spectrum (and the the protocols running on them) in use today and in the near future, and how these often interfere with interoperability.

  • by Cimexus ( 1355033 ) on Thursday November 11, 2010 @11:16PM (#34203638)

    Yeah Japan is even worse than the US in that regard - although SoftBank runs a GSM network so theoretically an unlocked quadband GSM phone (like the iPhone 4) should work in both the US and Japan with just a SIM card change.

    I say 'theoretically' though because although there's no ~technical~ reason why this can't work, it won't work in practise since they won't let the phone actually connect to the network unless its a recognised IMEI from a contracted phone that they already sold you ;)

  • Re:Yeah right. (Score:5, Informative)

    by MtHuurne ( 602934 ) on Thursday November 11, 2010 @11:27PM (#34203698) Homepage
    There is a reason for that: after the EU said "either you lot pick a single charger plug or we'll do it for you", the phone manufacturers decided to standardize on micro USB. You'll find that most of the other differences between the US and EU cell phone markets are also due to pressure from the EU: cell operators are not nicer on this side of the pond, they are just kept on a tighter leash.
  • by Microlith ( 54737 ) on Thursday November 11, 2010 @11:40PM (#34203774)

    Japan is the holdout; you have to have a local phone. AFAIK, there is no common phone that will in both US and Japan just by swapping a SIM card.

    Not on 3G, but if your phone supports the European 3G bands it'll work fine in Japan. My N900 served me quite well while I was over there in August on NTT DoCoMo's FOMA 3.5G network, even all the way out in Tochigi prefecture.

    Of course, I only get 2.5G in the US on AT&T, but them's the breaks when you buy what you want rather than what you're offered.

  • Re:Yeah right. (Score:3, Informative)

    by bigstrat2003 ( 1058574 ) on Friday November 12, 2010 @01:45AM (#34204266)
    Yes, but that's not two variants of micro USB, that's mini USB and micro USB. Those are not the same.
  • Re:Yeah right. (Score:5, Informative)

    by tlhIngan ( 30335 ) <slashdot@w o r f . n et> on Friday November 12, 2010 @02:22AM (#34204394)

    Unfortunately, a standardized plug does diddly if you don't standardize how to charge.

    There are a few billion ways you can charge from USB. There's the good old dumb "assume 500mA" method - where you assume you can draw 500mA from USB. Works fine for PCs and their chargers, but not so much if your USB host is power-limited.

    Then there's the USB charging spec - where the charger shorts D+ and D- lines, and the device assumes it can draw the appropriate amount of current as the charger it comes with - 500mA, 800mA, 1A, 2A. Again, no standard on how to pick the current, so a device is free to draw as much as possible.

    There's the Apple method, where resistors on D+ and D- lines tell the device how much power the charger can provide to prevent drawing too much power (iPods start at 100mA until enumerated at 500mA or more, or connected to a charger where it can select 500mA, 1A or 2A).

    There's also using the ID line with resistors that identify the device - an ADC converts the voltage to identify the accessory (charger, car kit, high-current charger, etc).

    There's also the USB high power spec, but that's for USB hosts that can provide more power.

    Even worse, I've seen some devices destroy the charger because they assume the manufacturer's charger and draw more current than the charger can provide.

    Fun fun fun.

    Anyhow, at least for iPhone users, you can buy iPhones in Canada which are fully unlocked from Apple stores in Canada. I've seen a number of US people come to Canada to buy unlocked iPhones.

  • by Belial6 ( 794905 ) on Friday November 12, 2010 @02:48AM (#34204470)
    Funny, one of the reasons I stick with T-Mobile is because they don't force me to. Month-to-month, good 3g speeds, unlimited internet, unlocked phone, and they give me a discount to bring my own phone.

    Instead of hiding the cost of the phone in the service plan, they just charge you for the plan, and give you a 22 month interest free loan on the phone. For people that want a new phone on the 2 year schedule, there is no difference. For those that want to upgrade early, they can pay off the old phone and buy the new at any time. For those that upgrade less often, they get a discount at the end of the loan.
  • Four-band GSM [wikipedia.org] phones work fine in the U.S., and all over the world. T-Mobile has a pre-paid plan for 10 U.S. cents per minute for those who don't often use a cell phone. T-Mobile will unlock the phones for you when you have been on their network for 3 months, if I remember correctly.

    When you arrive in Campos do Jordão, Brazil, for example, just buy a SIM card [wikipedia.org] for $7.50 U.S., and you will have a local number to give to anyone you meet there. And, of course, Google has cheap rates to every country, so people in the U.S. can call you while you are in Brazil.
  • by dsloyer ( 721579 ) on Friday November 12, 2010 @03:56AM (#34204662)
    The Nokia N8 supports 3G on both AT&T and T-Mobile: http://thenokiablog.com/2010/10/01/nokia-n8-3g-speed-test [thenokiablog.com]
  • Re:Yeah right. (Score:4, Informative)

    by RMH101 ( 636144 ) on Friday November 12, 2010 @04:34AM (#34204748)
    absolute crap. The radio is certified, then can be inserted into any standard device. The 3G bios lock is to protect revenues, not to protect the RF spectrum. If you can buy a 3G modem in your country it will have been certified there, and so will work fine when used in the conditions it was certified for, i.e. stuck inside a laptop.
  • Re:Yeah right. (Score:5, Informative)

    by TheThiefMaster ( 992038 ) on Friday November 12, 2010 @04:46AM (#34204770)

    Actually MiniUSB is more fragile:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MiniUSB#Durability [wikipedia.org]

    The newer Micro-USB receptacles are designed to allow up to 10,000 cycles of insertion and removal between the receptacle and plug, compared to 1500 for the standard USB and 5000 for the Mini-USB receptacle. This is accomplished by adding a locking device and by moving the leaf-spring connector from the jack to the plug, so that the most-stressed part is on the cable side of the connection. This change was made so that the connector on the less expensive cable would bear the most wear instead of the more expensive micro-USB device.

  • by icebraining ( 1313345 ) on Friday November 12, 2010 @05:13AM (#34204862) Homepage

    In the EU, they're not [geek.com].

  • That's fine for voice, but what about 3G? IIRC, there's no phone that works on both T-Mobile and AT&T for 3G.

  • by RzUpAnmsCwrds ( 262647 ) on Friday November 12, 2010 @08:09AM (#34205418)

    That's no longer the case - the Nokia N8 supports UMTS bands I, II, IV, V, and VIII so it will work with AT&T and T-Mobile in the US and with most other providers worldwide.

  • by realityimpaired ( 1668397 ) on Friday November 12, 2010 @09:51AM (#34206022)

    If I had mod points....

    The one thing you've missed (fairly, I suppose, since it's in TFA), is that you still need to worry about frequencies that your phone works on. T-Mobile is on the same frequencies as most of the European carriers, 1700/2100. ATT is on 850/1900, which is the same frequencies as all of the Canadian carriers (except Wind, who's on 1700/2100), as well as most of South America, and parts of Southeast Asia.

    You *can* take a phone from any of these frequencies, and connect it to a carrier if all you plan on using is 2G or GSM voice service. I've done it myself, using an unlocked Canadian phone in the states, the carribbean, and in Europe. If you're planning on using data, that's when you need to start worrying about which frequencies your phone uses for data, and how that ties in to what your desired carrier uses. If, for example, I wanted to take my phone to the states and use data, I'd be limited to ATT or ATT. If I wanted to take it to Europe, I wouldn't be able to use data at all.

    Interestingly, the iPhone 4 is sold direct from Apple in Canada, as a quad-band unlocked GSM phone that *should* work anywhere in the world, with any carrier.

    The big problem, though, is that half the carriers in the states are still using CDMA, which doesn't support SIM cards at all. Up in Canada, it's not *much* better... both Bell and Telus operate hybrid networks where you can use a CDMA phone or a GSM phone, and at least half the phones both carriers still sell at retail (even modern stuff like the new Blackberries) doesn't even take a SIM card. Rogers and Wind are the only carriers that don't sell phones without a SIM card. Similarly, T-Mobile in the states is the only carrier that only sells phones with SIM cards.

  • Re:Yeah right. (Score:3, Informative)

    by hazydave ( 96747 ) on Friday November 12, 2010 @03:00PM (#34209496)

    And in fact. some phones are built using just such a module. Sure, they're proprietary, and the phone itself needs specific software to support it.

    This would work.. but it's not the whole story. You could add the module to your phone, sign up with a provider, and then hit the net via WiFi. You would need at least OS-specific, if not device-specific, new code to support the add-in module. And of course, for GSM phones, you need a place to put the SIM.

    The harder actual problem is antennas. That's the frequency issue. Everyone doing Wifi has it standard -- 2.4GHz band, 5.6GHz if you want to support the "A" frequencies as well (which 802.11n can also use). But for cellphones... it's an issue.

    For 2G, it's easy... all USA cells use 1900Mhz for 2G/voice. AT&T and Verizon have most of the original 850MHz AMPS band as well. In Europe, it's 900MHz and 1800MHz... thus the "quad band" for universal support of voice calls. Ok, sure, Nextel used a non-AMPS segment of the 850MHz band.. but the whole IDEN thing is phasing out.

    Once you get to 3G, it's a mess. Well, a small mess, but a mess. CDMA2000 phones use the same channels they used for voice, so Verizon and Sprint work just as they did in 2G. AT&T needs wider channels for HSPA, but thanks to being in there early, they had both 850MHz and 1900MHz slots... 3G phones want to use both. T-Mo only has 1900MHz spectrum for 2G, to they had to wait to roll out 3G until a spectrum auction got them a chunk of 1700MHz and 2100MHz.. their 3G connections use both at the same time, like AT&T.

    Going to 4G, it even more complicated. T-Mobile has decided to just call their 3G HSPA+ network "4G", and be done with it. This is why they can say "largest 4G network", despite the fact that AT&T has more HSPA+ coverage. Sprint got in with Clear and Comcast (and Google and Intel and a few others) to create WiMax networks at 2500MHz. Verizon and AT&T are both supporting LTE (the preferred 4G technology of the 3GPP group, the guys driving the future of the GSM-related technologies), and they both bought chunks of the 700MHz spectrum. Of course, neither WiMax nor LTE are 4G yet.. but future versions will meet the specs.

    As for power plugs. just about everyone is using micro-USB. Enough user so that it's absolutely now the accepted standard. Except Apple, but you wouldn't expect Apple to worry about common standards or anything.

"We don't care. We don't have to. We're the Phone Company."