July 16, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

Unlock the cell phone? It's a high-stakes debate

Imagine a day when you can buy the newest, coolest phone you can get your hands on--and use it on any wireless carrier's network.

Right now that's almost impossible in the U.S. But if the rules for the upcoming Federal Communications Commission auction of 700MHz spectrum, which is being vacated by analog TV, are written in a way that encourages what's being called "open access," the wireless market could evolve into a network as open and thriving with innovation as the Internet itself. The date for the auction hasn't been finalized yet, but it's expected to take place in January 2008.

"The wireless industry is stuck in 1994," said Amol Sarva, a co-founder of Virgin Mobile USA and chief executive of Txtbl. "Back then, AOL controlled how people surfed the Internet and what content they could access. And that's what the current wireless market is like today under the control of mobile operators."

The problem is simple. Today most of the 220 million American cell phone users are forced to buy handsets provided and controlled by their service provider. In some cases, mobile operators are actually turning off features or disabling applications so consumers cannot access them.

For example, some phone manufacturers have disabled Wi-Fi radios at the request of operators to ensure that people don't circumvent the carrier's network and use their home Wi-Fi connection or public hot spots for access to the Internet. The peer-to-peer application Skype, which allows people to make free and low-cost phone calls using an IP connection, is also banned by U.S. operators.

"Spectrum is a finite resource that must be managed efficiently for the benefit of all network users."
--Steven Zipperstein, vice president of legal affairs, Verizon Wireless

Some providers have opened their networks to a certain degree. T-Mobile USA, the smallest of the four major operators, has just launched a service that allows people to switch between Wi-Fi and cellular. T-Mobile and AT&T also allow more third-party applications on their phones. And the phones, because they are GSM, can often be "unlocked."

Verizon Wireless, on the other hand, is the strictest of the major carriers in terms of the devices used on its network and the applications allowed on its phones. For example, many Verizon Wireless customers complain that the company blocks the use of Bluetooth-enabled applications other than headsets.

The situation is quite different in other parts of the world, such as Europe, where consumers are able to buy unlocked phones that they can load with applications from a variety of developers.

And because the devices aren't connected to any one operator, consumers are free to take their device with them when they switch carriers. In the U.S., most cell phones are "locked," which means that when American consumers switch cell phone providers, they must get a new phone.

"Imagine buying a television that stopped working if you decide to switch to satellite," Tim Wu, a professor from Columbia Law School, told lawmakers last Tuesday at a House Telecommunications Subcommittee hearing that examined wireless innovation and consumer protection. "Or a toaster that died if you switched from Potomac Power to Con Ed. You'd be outraged, for when you buy something that usually means you own it. But it's not quite so when it comes to wireless devices."

As an example, Wu said that Apple's $600 iPhone, which can only be used on AT&T's network, becomes an expensive paperweight if the consumer decides to leave the AT&T network.

Steven Zipperstein, vice president of legal affairs at Verizon Wireless, said in his testimony last week that Verizon limits the devices and applications that can be used on the network to protect consumers and its network resources. He also said Verizon works with subscribers who want to use non-Verizon approved devices on their network.

"Consumers want their wireless carriers to offer a secure, high-quality experience and to ensure reliable voice and data service free from viruses and other threats," he said. "But the experience is built on the carriers' ability to manage their networks for the benefit of all their customers. Spectrum is a finite resource that must be managed efficiently for the benefit of all network users."

CONTINUED: Government intervention?…
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Why isn't Verizon Wireless Screaming
The answer is quite simple: They are going to get access (need to win auction) to a major slice of the spectrum in the premium Upper Bands of the 700Mhz Spectrum for their own Walled Garden-Same same.
The only hope here is that Google steps up and commits their deep pockets to guarantee that a partner of theirs gets a Nationwide slice of the Upper Bands. They need this in order to finalize their plans for access to and control of the Last Mile, only piece they are missing today.
The Lower Band Martin is freeing up to "Open Access" is very congested and there are serious concerns that it will not be conducive to 2 Way Communications.
Would like to hear from a Radio Vendor on the capability for 2 way Comm. in these bands.

Also, where does the Public Safety piece come out of, the Upper or Lower Band space??

Posted by jacomo (115 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Dog, hamburger
This reminds me of something one of my colleagues said a while ago - "a dog with a hamburger it its mouth isn't going to give it up unless you bop him one on the head."

ATT and Verizon are coming up with noble and scary sounding excuses to get "another hamburger" without other dogs competing. If they succeed, we'll be in their so called walled garden for another generation or two, where the rest of the world gains a much bigger lead. The government should seriously consider providing open access (whether Google or others ask for it is not the issue, what is good for the public and the country over the long term IS) before selling off the "public parks" to private interests in perpetuity.
Posted by justice007 (13 comments )
Reply Link Flag
" ... IN its mouth ... " that is.
Posted by justice007 (13 comments )
Link Flag
cell phone
at one time i was given a program that would unlock my verizon hone, but cannot locate it
does anone have ti?
ron peterson
Posted by ronapeterson (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Software that unlocks hones...
I don't know if software to unlock a hone is legal. If you are looking for ti, I would be a bit more discrete.
Posted by ralfthedog (1589 comments )
Link Flag
Re: cell phone
Unlocking a Verizon phone won't do you again good because Verizon operates on the CDMA network (the only other major U.S. carrier that also does so is Sprint). AT&T/Cingular and T-mobile operate on the GSM network, as do most carriers worldwide. If you are interested in having an unlocked phone, say, for travel purposes or whatever, your best bet is to look for one on eBay.
Posted by Jillyho (5 comments )
Link Flag
This is why open standards are necessary
If all cell phones had a basic, security open standard there would be fewer problems across the board.

of course, that would lessen the carriers ability to lock you in and gouge you.
Posted by MSSlayer (1074 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Yeah- in fact,
I think they should empty the entire spectrum, fill it with open standards based wireless internet, and put everything online. What if I'm never satisfied with phones? What if I want to carry around a Linux tablet pc on my back with skype and a bluetooth headset? Dial up speeds? Whatever.

I don't see any practical reason not to do this- but then, when you make a system better, you work somebody out of a job. For instance, if Microsoft and Adobe both filed chapter 11 tomorrow, I wouldn't care (beyond the risk of economic collapse of course), because basically all my stuff is OSS.

What I'm wanting here is for network providers to be nothing more than wireless ISP's.
Posted by ethana2 (348 comments )
Link Flag
It's about time!
Cellphone companies are raping the consumer right now. Ever wonder why all the cool new handsets are only available in Europe and Asia right now?

that's why.

Disallowing locked phones would force cellphone companies to compete with private phone dealers who would provide the newest, coolest phones to consumers.

It would also allow consumers use cheaper alternatives for making calls such as VoIP and internet over wireless networks.
Posted by godam_registration (113 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Make them take it back
If the phone companies won't let you take "your" phone to a new network, they should be obligated to take back the device and cover all costs of disposal.
Posted by not_crazy (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Do you think your new phone only costs $99?
Nokia and Motorolla get $300 or $400 for their phones, when you go into a cell phone store and "buy" a new phone how can you expect to be able to take it to any provider to use ti when the one you bought it from paid more than you did for it. If people are willing to pay full price for a phone then it should be portable. Wait a minute, I think you can already do that by paying full price on the phone makers websites.
Posted by largeorange (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
cost of phones
When I recently lost a phone and had to buy a replacement at Best Buy the unsubsidized-by-subscription price was $89.50 for a basic model which was all I wanted.

Of course, a couple of months later I found the lost one.
Posted by tsumner (18 comments )
Link Flag
I'd much rather pay full price for the phone, then choose my carrier with no contract.

Come to think of it, Cricket does that already in the US. In Europe, it's a common and standard option.

Sure, there's subsidized phones, but that's because of the contract, and carriers know full well that you'll be paying them back for the subsidy cost at least 2-3x over during your enforced contract.

Posted by Penguinisto (5042 comments )
Link Flag
Locked in Contract
The phone is mine if I lock myself into a contract with a provider. So the provider shouldn't be allowed to lock my phone. The provider can lock the phone they provide me if I don't have to be locked into a contract. Consumers shouldn't have to get locked twice, phone and time period.
Posted by shawnlin (75 comments )
Link Flag
I believe you are incorrect !!
I have been to India and seen how cheap they are getting unlocked phones and also how cheap they get service. While their economy will only support a certain price...companies still sell there and I know they wouldn't if they didn't make money. They had the same and alot of the time better phones then we have here. I saw phones that still aren't available in the US.
Posted by waynems (1 comment )
Link Flag
Major Problem
There's a major problem with taking your phone to another carrier's network: The networks are not compatible. Yes, you read that right.

T-Mobile and AT&T uses WCDMA and GSM for their networks while Sprint-Nextel and Verizon use EVDO for theirs. To put quite simply, a Verizon phone will not work on AT&T's network, period. And the carriers are not going to spend big money to change the technology they use either. This is the primary issue with the cellphone ban that was put in place by the USITC on June 7 because Qualcomm infringed on Broadcomm's patents.
Posted by Maelstorm (130 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Unlocking phones in the USA won't work...
How is unlocking a GSM phone going to make it work on a CDMA network?

In Europe, don't all carriers use GSM?
Posted by john55440 (1020 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Some benefits still in the USA
I don't know the situation in Europe. I do know China uses CDMA.

You're right that there are 3 network standards in the US---CDMA, GSM and (I think) PCS. Verizon Wireless and Sprint use CDMA, while AT&T/Congular and T-Mobile use GSM, while Nextel uses PCS.

So, no, we wouldn't get the wide variety of phones they use in Europe.

The biggest advantage would be the ability to buy phones at retail (using the appropriate network type) and use them, instead of only using the ones the carriers choose to provide.

I don't know how many people in the US would spend the extra cash to purchase unlocked phones though---a high-end phone can easily cost $800 or more.
Posted by bluemist9999 (1020 comments )
Link Flag
Incompatible technologies
This is true. AT&T and T-mobile use different technology than Verizon and Sprint. But there are lots of phone manufacturers who are making phones with two radios in them. For example, the new Blackberry 8830 phone that Verizon touts as a "world" phone has a radio for CDMA in the U.S. and another radio for GSM when the user is in Europe. So in theory it wouldn't be too tough for cell phone makers to overcome this obstacle.
Posted by MaggieReardon (140 comments )
Reply Link Flag
That won't work
If the carrier locks your phone and does not require a contract, it does nothing to recoup the investment that they made in you by subsidizing your phone at $200 - $300 bucks. It does not recoup that money by denying you the ability to not use your phone.
Posted by largeorange (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Please open channels ASAP
You got your PC and an internet connection, will you like your ISP to only open Microsoft.com? NO... will you like your ISP to charge per MB because everyone is doing so? No... you buy PC from Frys and it works with Fry's internet connection, Fry's Electricity? NO.... Do you want a PC where only Microsoft provides application, no GNU no google? NOOOO....

may be all these questions and answers do apply to mobile domain as well. If hybrid (802.11+gsm/cdma) become cheap and pervasive then question will not remain that big, but only CDMA/GSM it needs to open up for internet access to start with. (which to some extend, Cingular is doing it by allowing and branding other applications.)
Similar in broder perspective shall apply to CDMA/GSM device not blocking or work for one carrier itself (like most of nations other than USA.)

It's your money, that you pay for device and service, so why get blocked with provider/carrier for locked devices, restricted application entries?
Posted by adityapkulkarni (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Just boycott Verizon!
If people stop succumbing to Verizon's hype (they have the most formidable advertising campaigns, I'll grant you), and vote with their feet, they'll find that it's a wonderful world not having your phone's capabilities neutered.
Posted by Tsee-1968031069905097881578618 (45 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Some of us just want a phone that is a phone
For those of us that just want cell that does JUST THAT, could care less about what features it can or can't have. I for one just would like to turn off the camera function on my phone since I never use it. Verizon is the best carrier in my area based on connections and availability. True though, buy the product that you want, don't legislate it.
Posted by gsekse (164 comments )
Link Flag

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