Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Sprint allows non-branded devices on their network - Not all its cracked up to be?

UPDATE: This article was based on information from reputable sources, including MSNBC and CNET, as well as countless blogs and tech forums. However, there is speculation now that this information is based on a misprint from their legal settlement.
See the bottom for more details.

Quick background:

Here in the US, there are two leading cellular technologies- GSM and CDMA.
GSM (Global System for Mobile communication): A global standard that allows device portability using SIM cards to swap devices on a whim.
(Examples: T-mobile, AT&T)

CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access): A faster and arguably more powerful network (at least as far as deployment in the states), that identifies each device by a unique number called an ESN.
(Examples: Sprint, Verizon, Alltel)


History of the "Problem"
One of the biggest advantages of GSM service was always that your phone number and account are identified by a SIM card as opposed to a particular device. This means that you are free to use any device that you wish (and swap as well), as long as it is compatible with your card. CDMA, however, identifies your number and account by device. This makes swapping devices tedious, and also greatly limits the number of devices available to you since most providers will only allow a device that they recognize as their own to log onto their network.
In other words, if Sprint picks up a particular device exclusively, you can't bring it over to Verizon with you because Verizon will not recognize the ESN number as one of their own.
Sprint, in an apparent effort to receive some positive press for a change, decided to mix things up a bit...

Recently, Sprint made a bold move by allowing any CDMA device to connect to their network.
This means that if you had a particular device on Verizon or Alltel and wanted to switch to Sprint, you could bring your old device with you. Or, if you can't find the perfect phone for you on Sprint's selection, you now have the option to buy it from another carrier and activate it on Sprint!

CDMA users who have been jealous of GSM's freedoms are undoubtedly pleased to hear this. After all, now you have the choice of any CDMA phone in the world!

But is this really as big of a deal as it seems?

Why its not all its cracked up to be...
This doesn't really open up that many doors to Sprint users... There are VERY FEW unbranded CDMA handsets in existance. Why? Because CDMA is inherently a "locked" technology.

Quoted from a Message Board post:
While its nice that Sprint opened up this option for us, it really doesn't mean that much since available CDMA handsets are far more limited than other "open" technologies, such as GSM. Sprint may allow us to use VZ's handsets now, but their lineup is very similar (with the exception of a select few exclusive handsets on both sides).

GSM devices are sold left and right overseas because you can use a SIM card in ANY GSM phone in the world, whether your provider sold it to you or not. Its recognized as a global standard and its portability allows anyone to mass produce a phone on a whim and sell it to GSM users all around the world!
CDMA is sadly not like this... if no carrier picks up a particular CDMA model, the manufacturer usually drops it like a hot potato. HTC has announced many CDMA devices that never saw the light of day since no carrier signed a deal with them, whereas almost ALL of their GSM prototypes became a reality through third party vendors such as imate and dopod.
In fact, many high end phone companies make a living selling ONLY unlocked GSM handsets, and indeed many of their models can't be found by any carrier anywhere. Yet, any GSM user is free to pop in their SIM card and use it.

CDMA, sadly, is not like that. The only models available are ones that someone, somewhere, decided to carry on their own network, and are usually only ones that are profitable to market to large demographics. Meaning the interesting and rare phones often don't make it to CDMA at all.
CDMA devices, unlike GSM, need to be activated by the carrier, and while its nice that Sprint is allowing ESN's outside their database, just having this "freedom" does NOT mean all that much.

Honestly, I use Sprint for now, and it'll be nice to be able to have a few VZ-exclusive devices, but in all truth I don't see their lineup (or any overseas CDMA models for that matter) to be any better than what we already have. That is to say, they all fall short of offerings. This is CDMA.

I could see it becoming more like GSM sometime in the future, if Verizon follows suit and creates a market for unbranded devices, but for now, well, its just not all its cracked to be.

NOTE: This entry, while still possibly providing an interesting point of view regarding different cellular technology, is based on information that is yet to be confirmed.
Sprint was brought to court in the state of California regarding a policy in which they would lock their handsets to prevent customers from activating them on another network.
Sprint has settled the dispute by announcing that they will provide the information to unlock the devices upon request.
The Rumor:
One of the lines on their official settlement website states that:
"Sprint has agreed to provide customer service representatives with information to help respond to questions from customers or potential customers about activating a non-Sprint phone on the Sprint CDMA network."
This line, however, seems to standout as irrelevant to the case at hand. Just because they will unlock their handsets doesn't mean that they have to allow everyone else's in! Many speculate that it is a typographical error, and that it really should read along the lines of "
Sprint has agreed to provide customer service representatives with information to unlock devices for use on other services when requested".
However, the argument for the legitimacy of the sentence is that the CDMA carriers can still be considered "anticompetitive" for not accepting phones outside their network, even if they unlock their devices. Sprint may be doing this to cover all their bases in the settlement... or, its just a big fat rumor that made it into the news. Only time will tell.