How cell phones are tied to networks

by on April 11, 2010

Q: Why is it that AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile phones can’t work on each others networks?

A: There are two reasons why most phones will not work on any other network other than the network you purchased the phone from. The first is the providers locking their phones to their network. The second is the technology not being compatible. You can get around the first by buying an unlocked phone but you cannot get around the technology being incompatible.

So why do cell phone providers lock phones to their networks? The reason is that most providers in the United States give rebates for signing a contract and this rebate is specifically to help bring down the price of the cell phone in exchange for agreeing to stay with the provider for a year or two. This allows the provider to make their money back over time while making the cell phone more affordable for the customer up front.

That really doesn’t explain why the phone is locked but one would suspect that they don’t want you to go and use the phone on another network after your agreement is up. Some providers were offering discounts on the phones that were bigger than their termination clauses so maybe that is why the locking in came about but most providers have significantly changed their agreements such that if you break the contract before it is up you are out a lot more than the discount you got on the phone.

You can buy “unlocked” cell phones. The “unlocked” phones would be bought from the company that make the phones directly instead of buying it from your wireless provider. You will normally pay a lot more for the phone because the provider is not subsidizing the cost for you. Some people don’t mind the extra cost in exchange for not having to have a long term contract with a wireless provider.

From a technology standpoint we have two types of cell phone networks and they are GSM and CDMA. GSM is used by AT&T and T-Mobile in the United States and is becoming the standard around the world. CDMA is used by Verizon and Sprint. This means if you buy an unlocked cell phone you are still tied to certain providers due to the technology that each provider uses. So don’t expect to be able to by one cell phone and switch between AT&T and Verizon.

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