Sprint Sued For Locking Handsets!
Engadget Mobile put out an interesting piece on how Sprint is getting sued under California state law for locking handsets to their network, not providing a way to unlock said handsets, and failing to disclose this fact to customers. To that, I say, Bravo. But the problem is bigger than just Sprint.
Let's assume Sprint will unlock a CDMA handset they sold. Fair enough. Nationwide, at least, there are two CDMA carriers: Sprint and Verizon. I believe the San Francisco Bay Area also has MetroPCS, which I believe is also CDMA. Anyone else offering CDMA service in that area is likely a MVNO on either Sprint or Verizon's network. Cingular and T-Mobile, both being GSM carriers, are out.
Even if you are able to unlock a CDMA handset, it will only be valuable if and only if there is another CDMA carrier that will allow you to use an unlocked handset. Verizon, in my dated experience, won't. I have no idea about MetroPCS or other CDMA carriers. The carriers can control this because they keep track of mobile phones that can be activated on their network by their ESN. If an ESN isn't in their database, they won't let you activate service on the phone, plain and simple.
GSM is a different beast entirely. Instead of the subscriber being tied to a device ESN as is the case in the US implementation of CDMA, the subscriber is tied to a SIM card. This SIM card can be moved between unlocked phones effortlessly and without calling the mobile carrier to get permission. Certainly carriers can restrict non-carrier phones from using the network, but in practice, they don't do that.
T-Mobile will unlock their handsets. I've heard mixed reports about Cingular unlocking theirs. However, either carrier will allow you to use unlocked GSM handsets. Even without Cingular or T-Mobile's help, if you have a Nokia handset (and possibly others), there are plenty of ways to get the phone unlocked for free or very cheap.
Locking the handset to a carrier has no real benefit to the end user. The mobile phone manufacturers benefit from users having to purchase new handsets every time they switch carriers. I suppose it also increases the barrier to leaving the carrier and going somewhere else. However, what they don't take into account is that carriers (in the US anyway) frequently give the handsets away or reduce the price substantially to entice you into signing a two-year agreement. The margin they make to cover the cost of the phone could become pure profit when the end user brings their own phone.
The idea of not allowing you to use a handset you purchased with another carrier using a compatible technology and compatible frequencies just seems wasteful. This practice should be outlawed, or at the very least, the carriers should be required to unlock handsets after a certain period of time (e.g. 90 days, as is T-Mobile's policy) or at the very least, at the end of the contract term. I believe this is compulsory in Europe, assuming you buy a locked phone at all, which I believe the majority of Europeans do.