U.S. Mobile Phone Unlocking Bill Doesn't Deliver Instant Freedom

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2014-07-28 Print this article Print
Unlocked Cell Phones

Despite the legalities, there are technological reasons why you're likely going to be stuck with your carrier.

Verizon and Sprint are both Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) carriers, and they don't share much in the way of frequencies. So while one company's phone may work on the other company's network, you may find that you won't get much coverage for anything beyond voice.

On the other hand, there's a lot more commonality with GSM carriers, including AT&T and T-Mobile due to the global nature of GSM, which will mean that switching between those carriers will be easier. But their Long Term Evolution (LTE) bands aren't all the same, so even there, it's hit or miss. And, of course, some Verizon phones are world phones, so they will also work on GSM.

What's probably more important is that the unlocking bill will allow consumers to move their plans to resellers and regional carriers that may be much less expensive than the national carriers. One such carrier that seems to be able to work with pretty much any phone is Net10 Wireless, which is a subsidiary of TracFone, which in turn is part of América Móvil, the Mexican wireless company that's expanding globally.

Of course, the reason that Net10 can work with nearly any phone and carrier is that they simply resell existing services using their own plans. But the bottom line is that in many, if not most, cases, existing wireless customers can save a lot of money by making such a switch, if they can unlock their phones. Now they can.

The chances are pretty good that making unlocking totally legal will result in increased pressure on the big national carriers. The "UnCarrier" attacks by T-Mobile have already resulted in some significantly cheaper choices from the big carriers, and while they have yet to match T-Mobile's prices, they're coming closer. Now that there are fewer impediments to changing networks, you can expect costs to drop, but probably not overnight.

The reason costs won't drop immediately is that many wireless users are still being held captive by those infamous two-year contracts that provide subsidized phones at very low prices. Those contracts make terminating a contract to change carriers very expensive, and while T-Mobile already offers to pay off your contract, not everyone is ready to change to T-Mobile.

You can expect to see a growing number of offers to encourage wireless customers to change carriers as unlocking becomes easier, but don't expect it ever to be easy as long as you're in the grip of one of those contracts. Regardless of the law, your carrier wants your money, and that's not going to change.



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