A different kind of standard than what you might expect, and the joys of lock-in.
Two competing technologies vie for the domination of a fragmented market — sound familiar? It should, it has been a typical story of just about every emerging technology, be it PC or Mac, Blu-Ray or HD-DVD, or the one I was recently reminded of during my run-in with the mobile phone industry, CDMA and GSM.
After having a chance to tinker with various Treos at last week’s SXSW conference, I decided I needed one. It started innocently enough; the first step was to get in touch with my existing service provider (Telus) and see what they could do for me. As it happens, the only PDA-style phones they offer are Blackberry models and a PocketPC variant. They mentioned they should be able to support it if I could find one, but no, they don’t provide any means of getting my hands on a non-supported device. Any next steps were solely up to me.
Now, the thing to keep in mind here is that 3 year service contracts are standard in Canada. Advertising almost exclusively revolves around this three year target. There’s your first sign of lock-in. You can get one- or two-year terms, but they make it worth your while not to. After the completion of my last three-year contract last summer, and given that I’d been with them since 2000, I didn’t think too hard before renewing to replace my old hardware. Now I’m stuck with this provider until 2007, for better or for worse.
After putting my name on their official request list for Treo support, I went to see what I could find on my own. Canada does not have the number portability law that other countries do; though it’s apparently up for legislation, nothing has passed yet. If you buy a phone, it’s forever tied to the company you bought it from. Yet more lock-in.
The first thing to check was whether anyone local sells the phone. Yes, a few providers carry them. Next: are they portable? Yes, as it turns out — there is a hack floating around to unlock your Treo. Excellent. In fact, Treo manufacturer PalmOne sells an unlocked version right off their site for about a $70 premium, so score one for a bit of Googling. The final step was just to call my provider and make sure I could get my hands on a SIM card that would allow me to connect the unlocked phone to their network, and then I’d be home free.
SIM cards are small chips that you can swap between phones. When travelling outside of your normal service area (say, to a different country) you can simply walk into a local service provider and buy a temporary SIM card for the sake of a local number and lower rates. Sounds great? It is, except if you don’t have the ability to use them.
CDMA, the standard that my local provider supports, doesn’t make use of SIM cards. They’re only available on GSM networks. So any options of switching a phone between a network are completely out of the hands of the consumer; on a CDMA network, you’re at the mercy of the phone company.
Well, guess which unlocked version PalmOne sells? If you guessed GSM, come on down, I’ve got a brand new toaster oven for you. Naturally, the version of the phone that I can’t actually do anything with is the one they happen to sell. Their advice for getting my hands on an unlocked CDMA phone was to get in touch with a local retailer; for some unspecified reason, they wouldn’t be able to provide me with one.
There’s a single retailer in town that carries CDMA-enabled Treos, and it is not the one to which I’m currently indentured. Guess how happy they were to unlock a phone for me? Another toaster oven if your answer was ‘not at all’. Long story short, it would be a chilly day on the Nile before they’d sell me a phone without a contract.
Keep in mind through all this that I’ve told each company I’ve dealt with that I’m prepared to pay full price for the phone. I realize the industry works on subsidy in order to sell contracts, so I was willing to pay the extra in order to avoid signing another one. Which equates to extra cash in the pocket for whoever actually decides to sell me the phone, cash they otherwise would not be receiving since I have no intention of changing my service provider. But policy appears to be policy, and so I’m completely out of luck.
What I haven’t learned from this is that service contracts suck — that I’ve known all along. What I have learned is that GSM appears to be the wisest choice of cellular networks for the consumer. Laws or no, there appears to be more inherent portability — at the very least, you can resort to hacking your way around anti-competitive practices thanks to the SIM card option. I have no such option on a CDMA network. There are other factors to keep in mind when choosing a network, but at least in this one aspect, GSM appears to be the superior choice.