The wireless industry in the United States has evolved under a strangely paternalistic and controlling set of rules in which the cost of devices is highly subsidized in exchange for sharp restrictions on the ways in which they are used. That was a mutually beneficial model when phones were roughly the same. Today, of course, multimedia-enabled smartphones are far more powerful and differentiated from each other and, consequently, opposition is building to these restrictive rules.
The most obvious example of this control is the "locking" of phones. As the name implies, locking prevents subscribers from using the device on any network other than the one for which it was issued. Other restrictive clauses, according NewsFactor, include disabling of certain features (such as Wi-Fi) and invalidation of warranties if "sideloading" -- the loading of third party applications onto the phone -- is performed.
The story says that the subsidization model drives vendors to build phones that are as inexpensive as possible. Though no groundswell has yet developed, the story says that requirements mandating that winners in the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 700 MHz spectrum auction put no restriction on the type of devices network customers use may be a harbinger of things to come. Cynthia Brumfield at IP Democracy offers some commentary. The title of her post, "The U.S. is Stupid When it Comes to Cell Phones," suggests her position. Brumfield makes the important observation that FCC chairman Kevin Martin seems to side with forces hoping to open up the network.
The approach seems antiquated in an era in which the power of both the network and the devices on it are growing exponentially. It's ironic that one of the catalysts to changing the system -- albeit indirectly -- is a company that doesn't subsidize phones. This Reuters story describes the increase Google has seen in its mobile traffic grow during the usually slow summer months. At least part of the increase is attributed to the launch of the iPhone.
Though momentum is building against more obvious forms of controlling users -- such as consigning them to a particular carrier through software locks -- more subtle forms of coercion may be developing. For instance, while the iPhone is not subsidized (folks who shell out up to $600 for the device can attest to this) the Reuters story says that Google and Apple have a deal under which Google Maps is featured on the iPhone. It's fair, however, to keep in mind that Apple isn't totally trashing the old model, since it restricting the iPhone to a single carrier.
It may surprise some that unlocking phones is perfectly legal. The problems, this ComputerWorld story says, are that they can be a tad more complicated and are limited to Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) networks due to the way in which subscriber information is stored. In the U.S., this means that unlocked phones only can be used on AT&T and T-Mobile USA networks. Unsubsidized phones, of course, are far more expensive than those underwritten by service providers.
This posting provides information on how to unlock devices. In some cases, the blogger says, it is possible to buy a code that does the trick for as little as $5. In other cases, the operating system has to be rewritten, which involves a wired connection to a programming unit. The piece says this is "a bit more expensive."
To us, it sounds a lot more complicated.