Want to read Slashdot from your mobile device? Point it at m.slashdot.org and keep reading!


Forgot your password?
Cellphones Handhelds Networking Wireless Networking

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."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Why Unlocked Phones Don't Work In the US

Comments Filter:
  • Yeah right. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 11, 2010 @10:14PM (#34203240)
    Technology and frequency differences? You've got to be shitting me. They don't work because the cell operators are greedy assholes.
  • by Kenja ( 541830 ) on Thursday November 11, 2010 @10:20PM (#34203276)
    Most of the phones I've ever owned have been unlocked, purchased direct from Nokia. Never had any issues with them "not working" with any carrier I could purchases a SIM card from.
  • by LurkerXXX ( 667952 ) on Thursday November 11, 2010 @10:20PM (#34203282)

    Yeah, breaking up Ma Bell was a terrible idea. I just loved having to pay rent on every phone in my house every month, because you weren't allowed to own your own phone.

    You know nothing.

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

    by ScrewMaster ( 602015 ) * on Thursday November 11, 2010 @10:22PM (#34203298)

    Technology and frequency differences? You've got to be shitting me. They don't work because the cell operators are greedy assholes.

    It would be interesting if the cell phone manufacturers offered a swappable, standardized radio module that would pop in and out like the battery. That way you could buy an expensive smartphone, and leverage that investment by just picking up a new radio module to move to a new network. Of course, the reality is that these pricks can't even agree on a particular power plug, so I wouldn't hold your breath and besides, they're perfectly happy if you are forced to buy a brand-new phone just to go to a different wireless provider.

  • by tepples ( 727027 ) <tepples@gmail.BOHRcom minus physicist> on Thursday November 11, 2010 @10:26PM (#34203310) Homepage Journal

    I'm not sure why we put up with it

    Because most people who consider a mobile phone in the United States find it preferable to the alternative: no phone service and no handheld device.

  • "analyst"? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by iamagloworm ( 816661 ) on Thursday November 11, 2010 @10:28PM (#34203326)
    he has analysed nothing. how much money these "analysts" are paid for stating the bleeding obvious is beyond me. this should be under the no-shit-sherlock dept.
  • by ScrewMaster ( 602015 ) * on Thursday November 11, 2010 @10:37PM (#34203378)

    Yeah, breaking up Ma Bell was a terrible idea. I just loved having to pay rent on every phone in my house every month, because you weren't allowed to own your own phone.

    You know nothing.

    You know less than you think. AT&T was a heavily-regulated government instituted monopoly, and it was a lot easier to regulate that single entity that it was to regulate what was left of AT&T after the breakup, and the thirteen so-called "Baby Bells" that provided local phone service. And now, they've all come back under the umbrella of SBC, only now without much of the regulation, and are if anything are more abusive to their customers, and more generally corrupt, than the old AT&T ever was. So tell me again how the breakup was inherently a "good thing (tm)?"

    It wasn't necessary to break up AT&T just to break the lock on subscriber-level equipment: that would have been an easy change to the relevant regulations: "AT&T doesn't own your phones anymore." Done. AT&T was broken up because it was a monopoly, and some people in government don't like monopolies. AT&T never really understood what the furor was about, considering that it was the Federal Government that granted them their monopoly in the first place, in exchange for a specific regulatory burden, quality-of-service standards and (most importantly) universal coverage. When you hear complaints about Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and the like cherrypicking what locales they service, well, now you know why. Also remember that, up until that time, AT&T did offer just about the most reliable telephone service anywhere on the planet. No, it wasn't cheap, I agree.

    The Feds tried to break up IBM, and failed, and (if I recall correctly) the head attorney on the government's side said, "Well, big isn't always bad." So there's not a whole lot of consistency when it comes to antitrust enforcement. If any company was deserving of a breakup at the time, it was probably IBM. But they got a free pass, and AT&T got shattered. And in the end, because the rise of packet-switched networking and the Internet changed everything anyway, we all got those cool services that Judge Greene wanted us to have, and it didn't take a breakup to do it. I'm not saying that it was the wrong thing to do (or the right thing, for that matter), I'm just saying that you're incorrect in assuming that such a heavy antitrust penalty was required in order to let you buy your own phones.

  • by ScrewMaster ( 602015 ) * on Thursday November 11, 2010 @10:53PM (#34203488)

    Ownership of subscriber level equipment was just the tip of the iceberg of Ma Bells' abuses. If that's all you have to go on, it's obvious you aren't old enough to remember how bad it was. SBC's abuses aren't a patch on Ma Bell's.

    I guess you misunderstood me. The GP was saying that AT&T was broken up just because of their lock on subscriber equipment. Obviously there was more to it than that.

    And the term "abuse" takes many forms. I do remember that AT&T's field service types were well-trained, and always did the job right. At least that was always our experience. Yet, ever since the breakup, the quality of field service has been dropping, to the point where I've had these guys just leave bare wires hanging from my ceiling. The last time I had service from SBC, the pricks charged me over $350 for "installation" when the house was already wired and the tech just plugged in his test set and got tone. They claimed the technician was in my house for five hours. I disagreed, and told them I wasn't going to pay, so they turned off my service. I went cellular for a while until I got Comcast Digital Voice (not that Comcast was much of an improvement.)

    Never had a problem with anything like that when AT&T was running the show. So, there are tradeoffs. We broke up the monopoly and got more competition, but we failed to maintain a proper regulatory stance. AT&T's abuses were largely systemic, and yes that resulted in higher phone bills, but their service was pretty damn good. And they weren't allowed to cherrypick: you wanted a phone, you got it, whether you were in a city or on a farm.

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

    by Cimexus ( 1355033 ) on Thursday November 11, 2010 @11:02PM (#34203546)

    Agreed. Using the technology as an excuse completely sidesteps the real issue here.

    Especially the 'differing frequencies' argument - haha wtf? Every GSM phone under the sun these days is at least tri-band and generally quad-band, which means it will work on almost any GSM network in the world. Differing frequencies is NOT a barrier to unlocked phones. Hell, I'm a dual Australian and US citizen and spend a lot of time in both countries, and I use my iPhone 4 (GSM quadband) in both countries without problems. It's an Australian-market iPhone 4 which means it's unlocked from the factory (or more accurately, was never locked in the first place). I have a Vodafone AU SIM in it and it roams quite happily in the US on either AT&T or T-Mobile (although T-Mobile is EDGE only for data due to them using a weird uplink frequency for UMTS/HSDPA ... EDGE is still fast enough for most things though)

    The only 'unique' thing about the US market, technology wise, is that the big carriers are split between GSM (AT&T, T-Mobile) and CDMA (Sprint, Verizon). So if you had an unlocked phone of either variety in the US, your choices would be restricted more than they would be in other markets. But there would still be ~some~ choice. And the technology itself doesn't preclude unlocked phones (which you CAN get in the US, e.g. via Newegg ... it's just that the carriers themselves don't usually offer unlocked phones in their stores, and won't offer you a plan that doesn't include the handset repayments component - T-Mobile excepted).

    So basically, yeah, the US market has come to accept 'cheap upfront phone then pay it off over a 24 month contract' business model as the norm, whereas in other countries, it's usually only an 'option' rather than the norm. But the carriers could offer SIM-only/Bring Your Own Phone plans any time they wanted. It's not a technology issue - it's an issue of the phone companies liking the current model (since it gives them more predictable income when they can tie customers in for two years at a time), and the average consumer not really knowing that there are alternatives.

  • by PsychicX ( 866028 ) on Thursday November 11, 2010 @11:06PM (#34203574)
    It's popular to talk about why 'unlocked' phones, but I would wager that the vast majority of unlocked phone buyers do not care that the phone is unlocked. It's irrelevant. We're not planning to switch networks. It's the contract that is the problem. Locked phones are fine as long as they're off contract. And off contract is exactly where cell companies don't want their customers to be.
  • by Ken Hall ( 40554 ) on Thursday November 11, 2010 @11:19PM (#34203658)

    There was a lot more to it than this. AT&T was prohibited from being in certain markets (computers) because of the "regulated monopoly" status. They had fantastic technology available via Bell Labs, but they couldn't sell it directly. They also had UNIX. They owned it. But they couldn't make money off it.

    The government wouldn't let AT&T sell computers because it was believed they would have an unfair advantage in the marketplace if they controlled everything from end to end. They could make their computers work better or cheaper on their networks. Few people remember now how much it used to cost to connect a third party modem to a Bell phone line. But you could rent a modem from Bell that would plug right in! And then you'd pay, and pay, and pay rent forever.

    The management of AT&T decided it was better for the company to be broken up so they could get the new entities into markets they thought would make them more money than just carrying traffic. At that time, the small computer industry was beginning to take off, and they wanted a piece of that. They wanted to take on IBM, and even without the local providers, they were still about the only company large enough to succeed.

    This isn't about technology, or customer service, it's about BUSINESS. Everyone who owned AT&T stock got shares in all of the new entities, and the idea was that the new entities, moving into new markets, could make more revenue combined than the old monolith. That translates into higher overall dividends, and higher aggregate share prices.

    It's all about "maximizing shareholder value".

    Sometimes in business, you have to think about what your company can be, rather than what it IS. If the railroads had thought this way, they could have been the first into the airline business, but they thought of themselves as RAILROADS, and not as "transportation providers", and by the time they realized what was happening, it was too late.

    The management of AT&T tried to branch out, to get into the game, but unfortunately nobody thought of them as a computer company. They didn't discover how to properly market their new products till they were outclassed by the other players. Their early UNIX boxes were good products that just never sold well.

  • nonsense (Score:4, Insightful)

    by evilviper ( 135110 ) on Friday November 12, 2010 @12:11AM (#34203920) Journal

    The summary is idiotic. The article isn't explaining why unlocked phones can't work in the US. It's merely stating the obvious facts that unlocking an AT&T phone wont work out that well for you right now...

    The big problem? The EU has one standard, while the US has two. The EU standard uses 3 frequencies, while each US standard uses four. Big deal. A trivial technical issue requiring a universal phone to cost 5$ more. They don't exist for one simple reason... the carriers in the US are allowed to lock you in, and its more profitable for them to do so.

    That's not to say it matters. Cell companies do such a good job advertising, that people will complain endlessly about their phone bill, but never switch to some other service with unlimited calling/data for half the price. Even with unlocked phones, their behavor wont magically change.

  • by Wonko the Sane ( 25252 ) * on Friday November 12, 2010 @12:23AM (#34203966) Journal

    That's the plan I use and it's pretty awesome. I live in the Dallas area so I don't need to worry about their coverage problems and get HSPA+ without paying extra.

    If you live in an area where their coverage is good it's hard to beat T-Mobile on price.

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

    by nine-times ( 778537 ) <nine.times@gmail.com> on Friday November 12, 2010 @01:00AM (#34204080) Homepage

    I think you're misunderstanding the idea here. The point is, even if you are willing to shell out the extra money to get an unsubsidized unlocked phone, you're generally still stuck on a given carrier anyway. I can't just take my AT&T phone and hook up to Verizon's or Sprint's network because their networks are different technologies.

    Even switching to T-Mobile, which should be possible because both AT&T and T-Mobile are GSM, doesn't really work because AT&T and T-Mobile use different frequencies for 3G. For example, if you bought a Nexus One, you would have had to have chosen whether you wanted the T-Mobile version or AT&T version, and there was never the option of using the Nexus One on Verizon. It wasn't because the Nexus One was locked.

    That doesn't mean the carriers aren't greedy assholes. It means that getting the phones to be unlocked doesn't really solve the problem.

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

    by gandhi_2 ( 1108023 ) on Friday November 12, 2010 @01:10AM (#34204128) Homepage

    Imagine... a radio system that is capable of receiving and transmitting on one of several frequencies. And switching between frequencies on command.

    What a wonder future that would be!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 12, 2010 @01:13AM (#34204144)
    Don't worry, mods use overrated when they disagree and are too much of a pussy to actually respond with an argument.
  • Re:Yeah right. (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 12, 2010 @04:04AM (#34204678)

    > Nobody builds a phone that can do all the HSDPA bands

    Nokia N8 anyone?

  • European law (Score:2, Insightful)

    by batistuta ( 1794636 ) on Friday November 12, 2010 @04:28AM (#34204732)

    In Europe, all cell phones will need to be chargeable via micro USB interface starting January 2011. This might sound like manufacturers have become all green and nice and wanted to cooperate, but it was really the result of pressure put by the commission. They do a lot of bad shit, but some things they do are worth noting, like this one. Link to article.

    http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,5852237,00.html [dw-world.de]

  • by batistuta ( 1794636 ) on Friday November 12, 2010 @04:40AM (#34204756)

    Things become more relevant if you roam a lot. I live in Europe, but the concept can be generalized. For me, when I go on vacation to visit relatives in Greece, I wanna be reachable by them. Roaming fees are plain ridiculous, plus no one will call me if they need to call an international number. So the standard thing to do is buy a cheap pre-paid card from Vodaphone for about 15 Euro~17 US$

    My wife used to live in Dublin and would travel back and forth from Ireland to Germany, almost every week. Swapping SIM cards was the way to go because no one wants to carry two phones, maintain two address books, etc.

    If it didn't make a difference, carriers would allow it. Because locking a phone must be more expensive than not locking it. So it must make a difference that is profitable to them.

A consultant is a person who borrows your watch, tells you what time it is, pockets the watch, and sends you a bill for it.