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Rip Up That Contract: How To Buy An Unlocked Phone

You don't have to be tied to a mediocre phone until death do you part. There are better 'free-range' phones out there, unlocked and ready to run the features you want. But free-range doesn't mean free.

What's an "unlocked" mobile phone? Before the Apple iPhone, it's safe to say that relatively few mobile phone users knew or cared.

An unlocked phone is one that isn't limited to a particular provider's network and has all its features available, just the way it came from its manufacturer. Providers programmatically reconfigure the phone's features. Some of these changes are benign and necessary, like setting defaults for the phone's Web browser. Others are business-driven decisions: phone features like push-to-talk or wireless LAN support are locked out so providers can charge separately for them, or keep customers from using them in favor of other higher-profit options such as high-speed data plans.




The HTC Touch is an example of a phone you may want to buy -- without having to commit yourself to a single provider.
(click for image gallery)
When mobile phones were new and novel, locked phones made some sense. The providers had to give away a phone to sign up a new customer, and it seemed that no two providers' network technologies worked alike. But since that Neolithic age, a couple of things have changed: Mobile phone technology has become standardized, and phone makers have responded to a global demand for handsets with a blizzard of devices that offer far more than plain old wireless telephone service.

These days, however, there are some good reasons for owning and using an unlocked phone. You can get features you might not be able to get from your mobile service provider. You can gain coverage, moving your phone from provider to provider, even continent to continent. And you can obtain some independence from mobile service providers -- an industry that, at least in the United States, generally seems dedicated to the idea that the customer is always wrong.

In the early 1990s, most of Europe and Asia adopted the GSM technology. Only in the United States are the major national service providers still fighting the old battles: AT&T/Cingular and T-Mobile operate GSM networks, and Verizon and Sprint operate something else. GSM is an all-digital network, which means that handsets are little computers that automatically support a variety of digital services in addition to digitized voice, including high-speed data transfers for applications like Web browsing and text messaging. GSM operates in the 900- and 1,800-MHz radio-frequency bands in Europe, and the 850- and 1,900-MHz bands in the United States.

All GSM phones depend on a small plastic card with an embedded microchip, called a Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) to hold the user account information that identifies the phone to the provider's network. The SIM card makes a phone's personality portable -- swap a SIM and you can put your phone on a different network or, conversely, put a different phone on your network.

This standardization of the mobile network environment around the world (except the United States) has resulted in something like a free market for handset manufacturers. They can sell phones with a seemingly endless variety of features to users, and users can buy phones with exactly the features they want.

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