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Weblog Entry

Mobile Standards

March 26, 2005

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.


March 26, 04h

I’d agree that generally GSM offers more portability, but (at least here in Australia), networks sell GSM phones that are SIM-locked to their network for a certain period - that is, you can only use a SIM card from their network in your phone for a period specified (although standard terms here range from 6 to 24 months - nothing as extreme as 3 years). I’ve never actually put this to the test, but the common belief is that it is true.

Having said that, however, they’re conditionally locked - you can pay to be released from the contract, allowing you to port your handset to any provider (and we have number portability, too).

In terms of CDMA, there are only two providers; national carrier Telstra, and Orange (previously Hutchinson), although these have various resellers. I have a CDMA phone, and personally wouldn’t like to have to try and move between networks.. it looks complicated.

March 26, 05h

If you find someone in the US or Canada selling his or her CDMA Treo650 (there are some Sprint customers here, who do), your provider will happily let you use it on his network.

Yes, it’s more of a hassle than swapping a SIm card, but usually a call to Telus, telling them the CID of the phone, is all that’s needed.

Dave S. says:
March 26, 05h

“I have a CDMA phone, and personally wouldn’t like to have to try and move between networks.. it looks complicated.”

Technologically, I’m sure it’s a simple procedure. It’s standard industry lock-in that makes it difficult.


“If you find someone in the US or Canada selling his or her CDMA Treo650 […] your provider will happily let you use it on his network”

Yeah, this is what Telus said. They’d be happy to let me use it, I just need to find the unlocked hardware. From what CSRs across three companies have been telling me, it’s not the company I’m moving *to* that will unlock it, it’s the company I’m moving *from*.

Bell Mobility is the only company in town that has CDMA Treos, and they flatly refused to sell me an unlocked phone. PalmOne tells me the unlock codes are established by Bell, not them, so they can’t help me. Telus claims they can’t unlock the phone without the codes from Bell. So unlocking is the key here, and Google only gets me a method to unlock GSM phones. QED.

Tom says:
March 26, 05h

I agree, mobile service contracts in Canada, mostly three-year ones, are really pain in the ass. If you decide not to sign such contract, you are forced with full-priced phones. (Which is very expensive.) Yes, and you probably don’t want to keep your Treo for 3 years when the technological updates really quick these days.

But, why Treos? Do you actually need it? or just saw people in SXSW, and decided to get one?

Luke says:
March 26, 05h

I live in good old Britain and all the phones I use go on Pay as You Go so I can just change whenever I want.
I couldn’t be doing with a contract.

Mike D. says:
March 26, 06h

Yep, GSM is generally a bit nicer than CDMA in almost all aspects. CDMA edges out GSM in speed, but bah, so what. You’re not going to be streaming movies to your phone for a few years yet.

Three things:

1. A quick search on eBay pulled up two unlocked CDMA Treos. If I removed CDMA from the search query and used “Sprint” or “Verizon” instead, perhaps there are even more.

2. In the U.S., it generally costs about $150 cash to break your contract. Buying a Treo from a place like Amazon with a new contract will generally get you at least $150 off the phone and sometimes up to $350 off, so maybe you do that and then the termination fee wouldn’t sting so much. The only problem there is the lack of number portability… ouch! Can’t believe there’s no law about that yet up there.

3. What does your current provider’s data plan look like? That makes a huge difference with the decision whether or not to cut them loose. In the U.S., I pay $4.95 a month for unlimited data through T-Mobile (GSM) but other providers like Cingular charge $45 a month for the same service! I wouldn’t switch away from T-Mobile for any discount with price discrepancies like that.

Dave S. says:
March 26, 07h

re: why Treos?

Look ‘em up. There are a lot of reasons to want one. I’ve heard the voice quality isn’t that great though… anyone want to confirm/deny that?


re: eBay

I checked; it remains GSM all the way on the Canadian version of the site.


re: contracts

$150 cash would be fine. It’s a sliding scale based on how many years you have left though, I just got quoted a $550 walk-out fee. So, no dice. (Usually being in Canada doesn’t suck quite so much. Honestly.)

jordan says:
March 26, 07h

According to the discussion at http://mytreo.net/forum?topic=7196.0 , calling your provider with a good excuse will get you an unlock code - but only if you harass them a fair ammount.

Eugene says:
March 26, 07h

Boy, I’m so glad that I live in a country where all the major cellular service providers have standardized on GSM. SIM card swapping is an extremely common thing here. You can buy almost any phone you want, subscribe to a pre-paid service from any of the networks, and do it all over again the next day (funds permitting).

Then again, because lock-in is virtually non-existent, we are plagued by rampant cellphone theft.

What we don’t have is number portability. That’d be really, really great to have.

Mark says:
March 26, 08h

I’m surprised the Telus rep told you it was possible to use an unlocked phone (even if you are able to find one)—that’s the opposite of what I’ve heard everywhere else.

In the URL attached to this comment, I’ve given a link to an unofficial Telus FAQ, which says:

“Telus Mobility will NOT allow for the addition of any foreign (non-Telus) ESN regardless if the phone is unlocked or not!”

There seems to be some debate about the reasons for this. (See the linked thread.)

In any case, you might want to double-check with a different rep before making a purchase. I personally know at least one person who wanted to use a foreign phone on Telus, but was refused.

Oliver says:
March 26, 09h

I currently have a Telus picture phone, that was free. However it includes a contract of 3 continuous years of using it, even if it breaks down.

So far the phone is pretty good. It’s been a year and nothing’s fallen off yet. But mobile phones update so frequently that my cell is probably already off the market. If I sell it right now, it won’t be worth more than $10.

But then again, what’s the point of a cell? To call. If it calls, great. But nooo, people have to have games, cameras, mp3 players and video players on their cells because they think those would maximize the purpose of a cell phone. Does it? I doubt it.

March 27, 02h

Living in good old blighty I am blessed with two networks - GSM 900 and GSM 1800 (PCN). SIM swapping is possible but phones are generally locked into a given network. I can sympathise with your predicament.

Havng said that, I deal with smartphones as part of my job in IT support. I test numerous handsets for usability, synchronisation of diary etc with desktop systems and access to the ‘net. I wouldn’t recommend the Treo at all. My first choice would be a Sony Ericsonn P910 which performs all these tasks admirably - decent handwriting recognition for note taking, Opera for web, POP and IMAP mail support and a decent phone. Even has a qwerty keyboard if that’s what you need. After that I’d look at the Micro$oft Pocket PC smartphones such as the Asus P505 and the HTC ‘Magician’ (Imate i-jam and other such names). To be honest I’d even go for a Nokia 9300 Communicator before a Treo.

I can understand the allure - I used to have a Palm III and have some affection for the pioneer of the PDA, but at the end of the day you want a phone that does more stuff - not a PDA retrofitted to be a phone.

Don’t know anything about CDMA to suggest a technical solution - in the UK we can SIM swap between networks providing that the phone does dual- or tri-band and you can find a market stall that unlocks phones. How come CDMA phones don’t use SIM cards? That seems like a major reworking of a mobile phone company staple to me…

Three year contracts, though - that’s harsh. I suffer from not being to upgrade for free in under a year, but three! Wow!

Hans says:
March 27, 03h

Sounds like a real hassle, this thing. I’m glad that here in Sweden, you have total controll over your number, and can use virtually any phone you want on any network. I have switched providers, and phones, 3 or 4 times the last years, and has kept the same number.

“You’re not going to be streaming movies to your phone for a few years yet.” Why not?

With the development of the 3G network, it’s really not going to be long before we can sit on the bus streaming a new flick. Today, I can download the latest news, music, and videos at the rampaging speed of 340kbps.

March 27, 04h

Great fun though, eh? You’re wandering around, desperately trying to give people your money in exchange for what you want. But no sir, we only want your money this way.

Boycotting’s the only option. Let ‘em all starve.

15
Doug says:
March 27, 04h

A Canadian cell phone provider had an offer for service. When I found out about the 3 year lock-in in the terms of service, I refused the deal.

I would much rather purchase the phone for full price and then be able to cancel service without penalty.

And then there is the misleading practice of advertizing a low subscription rate and then slapping on a large “system access fee.” There oughta be standards to cover such things!

March 27, 06h

In Belgium, where I originally come from, there is:
* number portability
* GSM as the standard
* contracts minimum 12 months with immediate opt-out after that
* no phone locking whatsoever

That said, I stayed with the same provider for 4 years and even continued using them for a short while after I moved to the UK, for _decent_ calling rates using their international option.

Now residing in the UK I went for PAYG as I would otherwise be locked in. If I go abroad I get charged for the stupid service messages of the local network! Even though I don’t have any, they usually send me 2 or 3 messages consecutively telling me I can access my voicemail the same way as at home. Luckily I can use my old provider when in Belgium, which doesn’t give me any of those crap messages at all.

If it wasn’t for unlocked PAYG I probably wouldn’t even have a cell phone, because even though I might be happy with that particular network for ever I still want to be able to switch whenever I like.

17
Daniel Schierbeck says:
March 27, 09h

Heh, here in Denmark there’s a maximum 6-month lock-in and the companies are forced to provide number portability.

Need I say we can get pretty good deals here? Here’s my current:

- No annual/monthly fee.
- 13 cent per minute
- 4 cent per SMS

March 27, 10h

The state of mobile in Canada is absolutely dismal - whether its Telus, Rogers/Fido or Bell. Even with an unlocked GSM phone it can be a huge hassle to get connected.

http://bryanrieger.com/2005/01/mobile-pain-in-canada/

As we’re paying CRTC fees/taxes for mobile in Canada, you’d think it might not be too much to ask that the CRTC actually regulate the mobile industry. Canadians pay possibly the highest prices for arguably the worst mobile service on the planet.

Aegir says:
March 27, 11h

Why don’t you just cancel the whole deal with your current provider and get a new contract with a GSM one? If you’re willing to pay the full cost of a new phone, why not pay the penalty.

CDMA though… that’s nasty! This is the reason we Europeans can snort with derision at North America’s antiquated phone systems. ;)

20
Joey says:
March 28, 04h

It seems like you could get a US CDMA phone that’s unlocked …

Another option to consider (though probably less desirable) is a Kyocera 7135. I’ve used one for nearly two years (wow, has it been that long?) and love it. It’s not the latest and greatest, but does work. For text entry it doesn’t have a keyboard, but www.fitaly.com can help in that regard. Other apps like www.belltools.com help out as well.

Hope you find something that works well for you!

brian says:
March 28, 06h

…don’t forget that you are potentially paying for wireless internet service too. While companies like Sprint don’t advertise it, you can use the Treo as a modem on the PC or Mac at no additional cost if you have the data plan (why do I have a hard time believing you would get this phone without that?) ;-)

I’ve had mine for a year and a half and love it.

Oh, and don’t forget to try ” 46645 ” Google SMS - look it up.

B

Tony says:
March 28, 11h

I’ve got a Treo 650 (Sprint) and love it. No complaints whatsoever on sound quality. In fact, I’d say it’s better than my trusty old LG phone. A friend of mine has a Treo 600 and has complained of voice quality, but he’s also on another network (Cingular) that I’ve heard many people in my area complain about…so it may be the provider.

Personally, I could no longer live without my Treo. I no longer have to lug my Sony Clie around in my briefcase (which I never seemed to have with me when I needed it most.) There are a handful of Palm OS apps that I use all the time that no phone I’ve seen can duplicate. I don’t want just a suped up phone: I want my apps. All of them! Add to that the super easy synching of my contacts database, and it’s a no-brainer.

For a low res (640x480) camera, the Treo actually does pretty well, also, meaning I don’t miss having my digital camera with me much of the time (for snapshots, anyway.) I do with it was around 2 megapixels, though. Maybe next version…

23
Calrion says:
March 29, 05h

Yikes! And I thought things were bad in Australia!

Late last year I had a similar prediciment: I wanted to ditch my Pocket PC, phone and MP3 player for one device. I looked at the combined devices, but they just didn’t measure up (poor phone or poor PDA).

So I went for a separate phone, and the best Pocket PC I could find: the the SE K700i and HP iPAQ hx4700. Both rock, but get an extra battery (not the extended one) for the iPAQ; I use a 1GB CF card for my MP3s and documents. In terms of wireless, the hx4700 supports fIrDA, 802.11b and Bluetooth 1.1. So all you need is a hotspot or a phone that supports Bluetooth dial-up.

I keep my phone (SE K700i) in my pocket, so whenever I want to connect I just get out the iPAQ and do so. No hassles, no cables. If I’m at home, I just switch to WiFi. Surprisingly, the iPAQ has become my email client of choice.

Good luck with your quest: may the gadgets (and Telcos) be with you!

(All prices quoted are in Australian Dollars, which is pretty close to Canadian, apparently.)

24
Mark D says:
March 29, 08h

Dave, I’ve been looking at the treo for a long time (I even had Katy’s go-ahead!); the stumbling block to date has been the operating costs. I waited patiently for the Canadian launch of the 650, then calculated the monthly fee with only the tinyest bit of data access - ridiculous. You could easily be on the hook for $100/month just for the ability to check email. Heaven forbid you want to get anything via the web. With half a dozen palms and pocket PCs floating around I can’t justify yet another PDA - I want the killer unifying device!

April 01, 02h

“Look ‘em up. There are a lot of reasons to want one. I’ve heard the voice quality isn’t that great though… anyone want to confirm/deny that?”

I have a GSM Treo 600, using Optus PrePaid here in Aus. I intend to port my number to Telstra GSM soon though, daytime GPRS rates on prepaid bite if all you want to do is catch up with the news during lunch break or scream to your buddies asking for help. My monthly data usage far outnumbers voice usage, so moving to Telstra’s $10 plan with a $5 GPRS bundle will work out $15 per month cheaper vs buying a $30 topup.


The CDMA Treo 650 apparently has had some problems, its been a while after release now, if you walk out, buy it and flash to latest firmware it shouldn’t be too bad.

The call quality isn’t that bad compared to older business oriented Nokias such as the Nokia 6210 or the individually targeted versions of them such as the 8210 or 8310,in fact its better in instances, only problem I’ve found is in noisy places handsfree kits aren’t really sensitive enough.


Call quality is only as good as coverage though, watch the call quality plummet as you walk into some buildings :(

See treocentral.com or mytreo.net on methods of moving a CDMA Treo to another network. Lots of pople have done this with Sprint Treo 650->Verizon. If Telus will gladly place a CDMA phones ESN#, buy a Sprint Treo 650, follow methods to move it to Verizon but use the Telus network numbers instead and it should be fine.

Further on to what Joshua said, its impossible to truly move between CDMA networks in Australia. Despite the fact Orange customers can psuedo-move onto Telstra because their phone is in Telstras ESN database for roaming purposes, it won’t work the other way around. Several people have managed to do a real Orange->Telstra conversion but as far as importing a foreign CDMA phone, forget it in Australia.

Olly says:
April 01, 08h

Interesting - I’d never even heard of CDMA. It appears that the whole of the UK runs on GSM.

27
T2-Kev says:
March 19, 01h

I was able to get a Rep on the phone at rogers wireless here in canada to provide the SIM unlock code. It took about 79 phone calls, 25 supervisors, untill I figured out that they wouldnt give me the unlock code, But with working in the cellphone call center business for a company that starts with a T (hint hint) I knew i would eventually get someone who was not aware of their “Policy” that or freak out at my very demanding “Unhappy” customer voice. And low and behold after 2 weeks on the phone with Rogers Customer Service reps I got a rep to provide me with the unlock. I popped my room mates Fido SIM into my phone and it worked. So if you REALLLLLY want that SIM unlock from rogers or your provider just nag them to death. But if your provider starts with a T and is based in the USA - just call and ask them cause they do it for free :P but they dont sell treos :(