The Time Is (Almost) Right For Unlocked Smartphones In The U.S.

It happens in only a moment. The stars have aligned, the music is right, and you lock eyes just in time to see the fireworks reflecting in her eyes. And that’s how you know, in that perfect moment between anticipation and bliss, this is your chance. Finally, after all this waiting for the circumstances to be just right, we might finally see…cell carrier neutrality*.

It’s the norm for a lot of our overseas friends, but here in the Colonies, we have four major cell carriers with four major breeds of network technology and four separate early termination fees to piss us all off. This leaves us in a fine predicament: changing carriers doesn’t just mean shelling out the cash to break contracts, but also requires us to buy a new handset. It doesn’t have to be that way, though! And maybe in the near future, it won’t be! Here’s why.

The State Of The Network

Here’s how it currently works in the U.S.: two carriers use a network technology called GSM (T-Mobile and AT&T) and two use a tech called CDMA (Sprint and Verizon). These two types of networks are completely incompatible with each other. It’s impossible to take a device from T-Mobile and use it on Sprint. Just doesn’t work.

Within those two classes, though, it’s still a little confusing if you have a smartphone. A phone from AT&T can be used on T-Mobile for talk just fine! Just slide the SIM card out of one phone and into another! 3G is another story, though. The two carriers use different frequencies so, for example, the million or so T-Mobile users that have an unlocked iPhone on T-Mobile are stuck on EDGE. Which is super slow. Bordering on not worth it, in fact.

The net effect is that, despite there being at least a little bit of interoperability between carriers, really, you can’t take a smartphone from one network to another unless you’re willing to take a serious performance hit. It also means the effective early termination fee for leaving your carrier could get up to $550 or more including the ETFs (Verizon and AT&T’s are $350 and $325 for most smartphones respectively) and the cost of a new device on your new network.

Needless to say, this blows.

A New, Universal Standard

Verizon choosing to adopt LTE was a big deal for a lot of reasons. The most notable of the reasons was the speed. Average LTE users can pull down in excess of 20Mbps over the air easy. Another big deal, though, is that LTE is a GSM-based technology. Up until this point, Verizon was using a CDMA standard which kept them isolated from AT&T&T-Mobile. Not to mention the rest of the world. The move to LTE is a move towards global compatibility. The new LTE phones even come with SIM cards!

AT&T has also begun the rollout of their LTE network, which they’ve been promising for a long time. That’s two-thirds of America right there. If AT&T is successful in their bid to buyout T-Mobile (they might not be!), that would bring another 33 million or so subscribers under their belt. Finally, Sprint has recently announced their plans to switch from WiMax to LTE for their 4G network. That’s everyone. Ok, except a few smaller carriers. But whatever. 90% or so of American cell subscribers will be on an LTE network.

As encouraging as that sounds, though, that’s still only step one.

Talk To Me

Of course, LTE networks are currently and primarily used solely for data connections. Super fast data connections. Drool-worthy data connections. Ohhhhhh, maaaan, such fast data connectio-….err. Sorry. Anyways. Just about all smartphones on the market right now that use LTE still rely on the older network technology for their basic functions like voice and text. The “it’s all just data” mantra is typically used by folks who hate paying for text messages, but the truth is that, while everything can be data, at the moment it’s not actually all data. At least not the same type of data. Voice data is still sent over CDMA networks on LTE phones, and those voice channels are entirely separate from the bucket of ones and zeros on the 3G or 4G data channels.

Enter VoLTE. No, it’s not a Voltron knock off. VoLTE stands for Voice over LTE. And Verizon’s used it in at least one phone. VoLTE treats voice data just as it would any other regular data. The biggest benefit of this is that a phone would not need anything but an LTE connection for any type of transmission. Voice, text, data, it’s all covered. Of course, this is dependent on LTE having a large enough coverage area to be reliable (hint: it’s not), but in time, we could see phones with only LTE radios.

Which leaves only one problem left…

Don’t Cross The Bands

As stated before, AT&T and T-Mobile, for example, already share the same type of network technology. Yet, still, you can’t just carry a phone from one network to another because they use different bands (frequencies). Carriers buy up wireless spectrum so they can ensure there won’t be collisions between devices on their network, as well as ensuring no one else can disrupt communications with devices also broadcasting on the same frequency. Fun fact: there’s a block of spectrum specifically allocated for unlicensed use. Your WiFi, microwave, and cordless home phone all interact with this same 2.4Ghz block. So, if you’re wondering why they even bother with this frequency allocation shenanigans, get on your laptop and try to play an online game while you pop some popcorn.

“So, why don’t they just make a phone that can support all the frequencies?” Good question! Frankly, there was never a good answer until now. Except, you know, “it would cost a whole bunch to develop a chip that does that”. Not many phones need that kind of support. In countries where it’s more common to buy your phone without a subsidy and then choose your network, many countries already have a uniform network technology. Meanwhile, in the U.S., we just roll over and take it from our carriers, so an unlocked phone with support for four different network technologies doesn’t really appeal to us. So, most chip manufacturers haven’t bothered to create a chip that can support everything.

Well, Qualcomm got bored and made it anyways. While a lot of radios in the past have supported quite a few bands, this particular SoC promises to support every band from 700 to 2600Mhz (read: all of them), on GSM, CDMA, LTE, HSPA+, and even EV-DO Rev. B (Verizon and Sprint’s 3G). This is the cell phone radio equivalent of a buffet.

In the past, we’ve heard whispers of devices with “pentaband” radios. These are so-called because they support five different bands. While this might sound like it could cover all the frequencies we need here in the U.S., for starters most pentaband devices (like the iPhone 4) don’t necessarily support all network technologies. Most of the time, these pentaband devices really just mean there’s a lot of GSM networks worldwide that you can roam around on. Not so much domestically. So, the Qualcomm SoC would be a huge step toward this universal network goal.

Now Just Friggin’ Do It

All the pieces are there. In five to ten years, we could have enough LTE coverage here in the U.S., capable of carrying voice, text, and data over the same channels, with phones that support every network technology and frequency known to man, and all with a simple SIM card swap needed to change networks. We could. But we might not. It really all depends on what the network operators and handset manufacturers decide to do. We may dream of the day that we can make our choice of carrier independent of our choice of handset, but carriers hate that idea. Just think of how long AT&T held on to iPhone exclusivity. They hated the idea of people being able to decide they want an iPhone first and then go shopping for a network.

Still, if you’d asked us a year ago if we thought we’d ever be this close to a universal network, we would’ve laughed at you. There’s still a long ways to go, but if they can make it this far, then maybe they can actually finish the job.

Here’s hoping. Universal network support is the last horseman of the apocalypse preceding carriers finally competing on plan pricing. And what a glorious day that would be.

*This has been your confusing metaphor of the day.

1 thought on “The Time Is (Almost) Right For Unlocked Smartphones In The U.S.”

  1. Joke’s on you, Ravenscraft! My laptop runs on 5GHz 802.11 N, so I can pop and play all day! 

    That said, I like the article and it does a good job of breaking it all down for people. It surprises me how often people don’t understand the difference between CDMA and GSM technologies, especially today with the information readily available on the internet. I look forward to the day when American telecommunications aren’t so completely ass-backward that we can get any damn phone we want and use it on any network. It would certainly solve my current dilemma of wanting a WP7 device, but only having 1 half-assed device on Verizon. 

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