On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate finally passed a bill that if signed into law would allow all of us to legally have our wireless devices unlocked so we can move them from one network to another without breaking the law. A “locked” phone is usable only on a given network and not on any other network.
When the device is unlocked, it can be moved to another network. This means we can change networks without having to buy a new phone, or so those in the Senate seem to believe. But is this so?
The answer is a mixed bag of yes, no and maybe. It really doesn’t matter what Congress passes or what the president signs into law. Some unlocked phones will be capable of being used on other networks and some will not. Let me explain.
Why and Why Not!
In 1981 when cellular systems first came to the United States, the Federal Communications Commission allocated radio spectrum in the 800-MHz range. At that time, only two networks were permitted in each area so one network was allocated half of the spectrum and the other network was allocated the other half. Years later, the government decided that only two network providers in an area did not provide for competitive pricing, so in 1996 the FCC auctioned more spectrum for wireless operators, this time in the 1,900-MHz range.
Sprint and what is now T-Mobile came to be with these auctions, and we ended up with four nationwide network operators and a number of smaller operators covering mostly rural areas of the United States.
Wireless broadband emerged in the mid-2000s and with it a huge increase in demand for wireless network capacity. The FCC “found” additional spectrum for broadband by relocating some existing users, including some federal users, and auctioning it. These frequencies were in yet another portion of the radio spectrum.
Since then, demand for capacity went through the roof with the advent of fourth-generation wireless broadband or LTE. Once again the FCC “found” more spectrum to auction, this time by relocating TV channels 52 to 69, spectrum different from any that had been used before, and this was also put up for auction.
As a result, U.S. wireless network operators today run several different systems on several different portions of the radio spectrum. Europe and Asia operate on even different frequencies. Some network operators such as AT&T and Verizon own spectrum in most if not all of the different “bands,” but Sprint and T-Mobile do not own spectrum in the two most important bands. Further, next year there will be more auctions, this time to replace TV channels 32 to 51 with wireless services, carving out yet another portion of spectrum.
Today’s U.S. wireless operators operate on so many different portions of the radio spectrum that the internal radio element of a smartphone is jammed with different radio modules, antennas, filters and other parts. There is no such thing as a single radio that can operate on all of the different spectrum that is being used.
So not all phones are built with all radio channels in them. For example, let’s look at a phone on AT&T (or Verizon). It probably has most of the other necessary frequencies to move from one network to another, but in the most important newer portion of the radio spectrum that is used for LTE or fast broadband services, AT&T phones do not support the Verizon spectrum and Verizon phones do not include the AT&T spectrum. So yes, you could unlock an AT&T phone and move it to the Verizon network, but you would not get Verizon’s fourth-generation broadband speeds for Internet browsing, video watching or any other type of data. The same would be true when moving a Verizon phone to AT&T.
Moving a phone from Sprint or T-Mobile is even worse. While it can be done, you would only have a portion of the AT&T or Verizon network available to you. This would greatly reduce your coverage since the network operators do not use every portion of their spectrum in every city or even within every area within a city or county.
In other words, being able to unlock a phone in the United States is a nice idea, but it would cause more problems for customers than it would solve. In Europe, where all networks use the same frequencies, unlocked phones are a way of life. However, in the United States unlocked phones won’t solve anything.
Besides, most operators are beginning to follow T-Mobile’s lead by doing away with two-year contracts and phone subsidies. Instead, you will spend more for a phone upfront or over time and sign up for a month-to-month contract that does not tie you to penalties. Still, if you want to move to another network you will need to plan to move your phone number over — but don’t count on moving your smartphone, tablet or laptop without sacrificing system performance and/or coverage.
Passing a law requiring unlocking phones might seem like a good idea, but the law of physics cannot be changed. Until there is a single phone capable of covering all of the portions of the radio spectrum in use for wireless voice and broadband services, unlocking phones serves no purpose.
— Andrew Seybold is a wireless communications consultant. The opinions expressed are his own.