November 29, 2007


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Phone frenzy, part 1
Locks are for breaking
By John “jaQ” Andrews

I don’t venture into the mobile phone realm often, for a very simple reason: it’s confusing as all get-out.

Recent developments, though, have made the mobile arena too ripe with drama to ignore. Those developments are the release and subsequent cracking of Apple’s iPhone; and, more recently, Google’s announcement of an open source operating system for mobile phones.

As you probably know if you’ve ever shopped for one, most cell phones are married to a specific provider; sign up for that provider and you get the phone free or cheap. Try to change providers and you’ll likely run into roadblocks, not just because your contract hasn’t expired, but your phone isn’t compatible with any other providers.

When Apple released the iPhone, you could use it on precisely one network: AT&T/Cingular. Predictably, that made a lot of Apple fanboys quite upset, and work began immediately on opening the thing up for other providers. The hackers were successful pretty quickly; then Apple updated the iPhone’s firmware; then hackers cracked that; etc.

Unlocking cell phones is nothing new, but the iPhone battle shines a spotlight on the issue. Just about any phone you can imagine is available in an unlocked variety if you know where to look (hint: “be” in Pig Latin). Of course, just having an unlocked phone doesn’t automatically mean you can make it work on any provider’s network. What, you thought this would be simple?

The problem is that mobile phones in the USA generally use one of two technologies to access their respective networks: GSM or CDMA. What those acronyms stand for is not really important, illuminating or interesting, but for you detail-oriented freaks, I’ve supplied this handy asterisk.* What matters is that your phone match the provider you want. Sprint/Nextel, US Cellular and Verizon, for example, use CDMA, while AT&T/Cingular and T-Mobile use GSM.

That means even an unlocked iPhone won’t run on your Verizon plan. Sorry. Just not built for it. If you have a T-Mobile account, though, you’re golden.

If all this seems like a hassle, yeah, it kind of is. Don’t think that’s an accident. Mobile providers have quite the financial incentive to keep their customers locked into their contracts, after all. For most people, it’s just simpler to find a carrier and phone together.

But there’s more reason for unlocked phones than just sticking it to the man. You might be moving and find that coverage in your new home for your current provider just stinks. Maybe you’re searching for a cut-rate prepaid plan because you don’t use your cell phone that much. Or maybe a new phone is just ten kinds of awesome and your provider doesn’t offer it.

Or maybe you love your current phone and want to switch providers. There are completely reputable and non-scammy unlocking services out there, but they can be a bit hard to tease out. Unlocking a phone yourself could be easy or could be a pain; it all depends on what phone you have. In some cases, a simple Google search of “unlock” and your phone’s model number will tell you how. In other cases, your prospective provider might be able to provide you with a code to unlock it.

Speaking of Google ... oh, heck, next week.

*Global System for Mobile Communications and Code Division Multiple Access, respectively. Happy now?