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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 Mean Variance ( 913229 ) <> on Thursday November 11, 2010 @10:14PM (#34203242)

    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.

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

    by h4rr4r ( 612664 ) on Thursday November 11, 2010 @10:25PM (#34203308)

    Other than Apple who is not using the micro USB interface these days?

  • by h4rr4r ( 612664 ) on Thursday November 11, 2010 @10:27PM (#34203318)

    So buy the phone you want, then get the contract and swap the sim into the phone you wanted. Now sell the "free" phone on ebay.

  • Re:LTE either? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by jra ( 5600 ) on Thursday November 11, 2010 @10:32PM (#34203344)

    [ reads piece ]

    Oh: "Andy Seybold Guesses".

    Got it.

    Hey, Andy? LTE *isn't* 4G; ITU says so.

    Andy underrates RF technology; if Vzn can deploy LTE robustly, things will get very interesting.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 11, 2010 @10:33PM (#34203358)

    Seriously, compare our rates. Our plans. The contracts lengths.

    There's a reason why cellphones aren't as popular in Canada as everywhere else on the planet. And Canadians don't throw their money around like Americans and that's another thing bugging the cellphone companies.

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

    by puto ( 533470 ) on Thursday November 11, 2010 @10:34PM (#34203362) Homepage
    Samsung I think. They love to have proprietary connectors.
  • by h4rr4r ( 612664 ) on Thursday November 11, 2010 @10:44PM (#34203432)

    It seems PagePlus only offers 50MB of data, so forget about using your phone as GPS device or doing anything data related while not at home/work.

  • by Microlith ( 54737 ) on Thursday November 11, 2010 @11:09PM (#34203588)

    But other Slashdot users appear to be of the opinion that T-Mobile has the worst coverage among the big four.

    They do. For as many places as they're in, their coverage tends to be rather iffy if you get out of the major metro areas.

    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.

    Totally depends on what you're after. It's a so-so phone, but a pocket computer like none-other. Phone capabilities were tertiary (but still essential) for me, behind data and hackability. It's got some things that make no sense, and some that are just dumb, but I won't go to Android from here, never mind WP7 or the iPhone. And if you use Linux regularly, all the capability is there if you want it.

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

    by dgatwood ( 11270 ) on Thursday November 11, 2010 @11:25PM (#34203692) Homepage Journal

    Except that these barriers are all really nothing more than a chicken-and-egg problem. Nobody builds a phone that can do all the HSDPA bands, but that's not because it's hard. The only customers who care about the 1700 MHz band are in the U.S. and Canada on carriers that don't sell unlocked phones, and there are no laws requiring unlocking. As a result, those customers don't expect to be able to move from one carrier to another without unlocking. As a result, the handset manufacturers don't need to build phones that allow this. As a result, the chipset vendors largely haven't bothered to design the chips to make this possible.

    If you can build a 5-band handset, a 6-band handset is really only incrementally harder. Even a 12-band handset is only incrementally harder when you factor in electronically tunable antennas into the mix.

  • by Constantin ( 765902 ) on Thursday November 11, 2010 @11:42PM (#34203782)

    The main point of the article should have been that the EU created a competitive landscape by restricting competitors to interoperability standards that do not exist in the USA - i.e. allowing customers to go from carrier to carrier without the need for a new phone. Here in the US, you are automatically subsidizing a new phone when you sign up for service with any major wireless company - and if you don't use the subsidy by buying a new phone every two years, then you're leaving money on the table. Yes, a waste, but that's what evolved over here vs. the general EU model of the customer providing the phone and the carrier supplying the SIM (though subsidized plans exist).

    Me, I'd prefer the ability to switch carriers and not to have this hidden subsidy. If the phone works and you're happy with it, why quasi-require the owner to chuck it for a new model? Just more e-waste with no tangible benefit except for those that like to further line the pockets of wireless carriers through the use of additional (previously unreachable) services. I also like that the EU mandates that the caller to the cell pays for the call. Seriously cuts down spam calls - because calls to cell phones are 5x more expensive than landline calls. An additional benefit is the possibility of giving a phone to your kid and being able to call them at will - but they cannot make calls unless they refill the SIM bank account.

    Anyhow, IIRC, the iPhone 4 has two external antennas that are nominally tuned to certain frequencies but which through some electronic happiness inside can actually cover a wider variety of frequencies than the one that they are 'naturally' resonant on. So your signal quality on a 700MHz band using a nominal 850MHz antenna may not be great, but it may still work. The current iPhone 4 is capable of handling signals ranging from 850MHz-2.4GHz... so the current design limitations may be just that, limits by design to lock folk into AT&T in the US market. Then again, I don't know enough about all the technologies, compatibility issues, etc. to say for sure that it can be done.

  • Re:Yeah right. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by mysidia ( 191772 ) on Friday November 12, 2010 @12:24AM (#34203970)

    carriers that don't sell unlocked phones

    The carriers are missing out on the opportunity to sell an "unlocking service", or phones that can hold multiple SIM cards and be enabled for additional carriers, with an "unlocking ticket" purchased from the primary provider, as long as their subscription with the locked provider is still active

  • by Langfat ( 953252 ) on Friday November 12, 2010 @01:34AM (#34204228) Homepage
    Norway and Canada have roughly the same population density [] yet Norway has nearly double the number of mobile phones [] per capita that Canada does.

    As a Canadian living in Norway, I can definitively say it's because the laws are stricter here regarding price/competition, and the requirements of infrastructure are much greater on the carriers.
  • Re:Why should they? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by spisska ( 796395 ) on Friday November 12, 2010 @02:03AM (#34204330)

    There's a bit more to it than that. If you travel in Europe for business, you're going to be visiting different countries. They're all on the same GSM standard, but roaming and out-of-network rates have traditionally been extortionate.

    When I lived there in the late '90s, early '00s, I knew plenty of people who carried multiple phones -- one with their primary number, another with their 'other network' number, and sometimes a third that they could swap pay-as-you-go cards into when travelling.

    When I lived in Slovakia there were two carriers, one owned by Orange the other by DT (later T-Mobile). All outgoing calls were metered. Calls in-network were reasonable but out of network -- i.e. from Slovak T-Mobile to Slovak Orange, cost something like five times as much. Calls elsewhere in the EU could approach 20 times as much.

    The carriers didn't want to sell unlocked phones, but that's what people demanded. Generally you couldn't buy an unlocked phone from a carrier, but if you already had one, they were happy to sell you a SIM.

    Everybody age 16 to 25 either could unlock a phone themselves or knew someone who could. Everyone knew someone that age. Also, most people who wanted one bought an unlocked phone from sources other than the carriers.

    Plus, it was much more common for people to buy the phone and use a pay-as-you-go service rather than get a subsidized phone as part of a fixed contract.

    The carriers wanted a long-term plan system like exists here but the market wasn't interested, for many reasons including those mentioned above.

    But if it cost a US user 20x as much to call someone in another state, things might have worked out differently.

  • Uneducated article (Score:2, Interesting)

    by dgcom ( 1149491 ) on Friday November 12, 2010 @02:05AM (#34204338)
    This article is actually the best indicator why those unlocked phones "do not work" in US - not because of imaginary technical problems, but because of people not knowing (and not even willing to learn) a little bit about this technology...

    The discussion above also confirms this - why everyone repeats this mantra about contracts? You buy contract only once with given provider, once it expires, stay on month-to-month, like in other parts of the world. And get a good unlocked phone.

    Right now, Nokia phones on AT&T is the best possible money saver - AT&T does not have database with their IMEI, so they don't force you to pay through the nose for data. If you are individual, unlimited is just 15 bucks. Family? Granted, you already paying for unlimited messaging - then you just add $10 on top for unlimited data. That's it. Here is your $15-$20 monthly discount for unlocked phone.

    And if you buy Nokia's latest N8, you get - imagine that! - 9 (nine) band phone, 4 GSM and 5 HSDPA bands, so you are 3G-covered not only in Europe/Asia, but in North America as well.

    So, what is not working is the brain of some tech "journalists", unlocked phones are all good, for people, who know how things work.

  • by punit_r ( 1080185 ) on Friday November 12, 2010 @02:33AM (#34204436)

    Think about it. Imagine trying to buy a cable - I could see a handful of iPhone accessories in a 7-11, but probably not a micro-usb cable.

    Normally proprietary cables are bad news, but ubiquity always trumps universality.

    Now what does that tell a person ? Pick one ore more from the below
    (1) Micro-usb sells a lot more than the proprietary apple cable. It runs out of stock sooner.
    (2) Standardization is good. No store keeper finds it lucrative to sell overpriced proprietary cables.
    (3) Standardization allows users to use one cable with multiple accessories. Hence, reducing market demand.

  • by jimicus ( 737525 ) on Friday November 12, 2010 @05:03AM (#34204838)

    Can you guys go from carrier to carrier and keep your number? Easy in the EU (though I don't think you can cross national borders and do that).

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

    by thetartanavenger ( 1052920 ) on Friday November 12, 2010 @06:46AM (#34205164)

    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.

    The different technologies are an issue that can't be sidestepped, at least, not without phone manufacturers going to the effort of making a phone with multiple communications technologies.. But, can you easily move between verizon's network and sprint's? I'm a UK resident who visits the US frequently, and from everything I've heard and seen Verizon at the very least aren't too happy about activating other people's phones on their network, even if you do have an unlocked phone with a valid serial number. Is this the same for Sprint? Please correct me if I'm wrong here.

    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.

    Now this one is through greed. A large portion of the world uses the same frequencies for 3g communication, but AT&T decided to be different? Two possible reasons, using that seperate frequency boosts speeds? AT&T's network is proof this is not the case, and I get faster speeds on my phone here in the UK and on T-Mobile's US network than I have on any phone designed for AT&T. So the only other choice is consumer lockin, tantamount to greed.

    Tranferring an unlocked phone should be limited by the technologies being used, and be transferrable between any networks using those technologies. In a nutshell, swappable between Sprint & Verizon, or swappable between AT&T and T-Mobile.

  • Thing is, companies keep building out to these different standards precisely because consumers let themselves be locked into one or the other, and didn't demand portability.

    Free markets do a lot of things right. Here's a case, in my opinion, of them not working so well: consumers often fail to understand complex issues.

    Understanding that you should pick the ice cream that says "vanilla" on the tin if you prefer that flavor to chocolate is something everyone can do, and the producers and retailers organize themselves according to the amounts demanded across the consumer base.

    Understanding the long-term benefits of buying an open vs. closed platform---or more abstractly, buying a higher-level plan economy vs. free market---is not something people do well. Either that, or they prefer the benefits of closed systems more than I do :-)

    For example, Microsoft likes to say that Windows is an open platform---anyone can write software that goes on top of it and Microsoft can do nothing to control people. The game console market functions differently; there's a lot of top-down control from the platform provider. Similarly for the Apple App Store.

    Similar stories can be told about telecommunication and electricity: someone should operate the wires that make up the basic transmission system. Someone should deliver stuff via those wires (joules, voice calls, datagrams). If you own the base "platform" (wires), you might use that to control what the wires are used for.

    People seem to prefer the iPhone to Android and Android to N900 (and the Freerunner). They like gaming consoles. They seem to be annoyed about incompatibilities and Little Dongly Things ( but not do much about it in terms of their purchasing decisions. They tend to discount the long-term advantages of promoting open platforms and the greater amount of innovation that tend to happen on top of them. If people truly have short-term preferences, they're not wrong to do so, but see also Dan Gilbert and Daniel Kahnemann's TED(.com) talks.

    (lesson from DNA: three things had to align; his preferences, the sales rep's understanding of those preferences and the sales rep's understanding of the product. By asking "are you sure?", you're not aligning any of those, you're just making the sales rep even more certain of their wrong conclusion. Instead, ask them directly about their observations, or ask about the same things in different terms, or ask about the negation; i.e. "does it have a power adapter? How does it look? How does it work?" Might help you do family tech support over the phone as well) /ramble (sorry)

  • Re:Yeah right. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by TheRaven64 ( 641858 ) on Friday November 12, 2010 @08:44AM (#34205570) Journal
    Yup, it's a shame that they didn't just invalidate Apple's patents on the dock connector. It contains pins for USB, FireWire, RS-232, analogue audio and composite video as well as power. I'd love to see something like that as standard. If only it had something like DisplayPort or HDMI as well, it would be the only plug you'd need for a handheld computer.
  • Re:Yeah right. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by buchanmilne ( 258619 ) on Friday November 12, 2010 @08:58AM (#34205662) Homepage

    It would be interesting if the cell phone manufacturers offered a swappable, standardized radio module that would pop in and out like the battery.

    It would be much more interesting, and much less expensive, pose no unresolved technical challenges, if the shared-majority wireless operators in the US (Sprint, Verizon), would just use an existing swappable, standardised user identity module, like R-UIM [] cards. However, they are too concerned with fighting each other to realise that their technology has already lost, due to not being viable in other countries (where R-UIM is a requirement, but all decent phones are made for Sprint and Verizon, almost exclusively without R-UIM support). Not separating the number from the phone makes it too much of a hassle for users to switch phones, sell used phones, travel without roaming etc. (and of course, switching networks, which is what they are actually after, but damaging the whole CDMA market in the process), which are all trivially possible with GSM.

    Maybe they could allow roaming to more than just a handful [] of international CDMA operators []. For example, there are multiple CDMA operators in many African countries, (including some that have tens of thousands of US citizens working in them), but not one is supported for roaming by Verizon or Sprint. Verizon seems to have more limited roaming than the cheapest crappiest GSM operators, and Sprint mostly provides roaming via GSM operators (so, if you travel, you already need a dual-tech phone, or two phones, why not just use GSM all the time?).

    Huawei (who makes a lot of CDMA-based gear, both telco-side and handsets, mostly for China Telecom I guess) has a nice article [] covering the issues with CDMA roaming. Most of them are due to "American mindset" that is inherent in CDMA and CDMA deployments. Of course, Huawei is punting their solutions to these problems, but waiting for all CDMA operators to refresh their kit will make you old.

    Also, maybe if CDMA operators had consistent international dialing/number representation formats (like the +XX convention used by all GSM operators), users would figure out how to actually make international calls via CDMA. But, who needs numbers that don't start with a "1" anyway ...

    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.

    At the moment, 52% of US subscribers can't even move between operators that use the *same* baseband modules (vs less than 15% worldwide). Maybe you should try and solve that problem first.

Logic is a pretty flower that smells bad.