The PhoneBoy Blog


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Mobile Phone Unlocking is Now Explicitly Legal in the USA–So What?

Like many other bloggers, I saw this article on how the US Copyright office basically says, as of Monday, we will be able to legally use software to unlock our phones in order to use them on other carriers. While this is nice for those of us who use GSM, it does nothing for the majority of the US population that uses CDMA.

There is a key difference between how GSM networks identify the individual subscriber and how CDMA networks (at least in the US) identify the subscriber. In GSM, a SIM card is used. The SIM card contains your subscriber information. You can change phones by simply swapping the SIM card into a different phone. In CDMA, your subscriber information is tied to the phone's ESN, which is a kind of serial number. Since the ESN is burned into the phone and not portable among phones, in order to change phones, you must contact the carrier (Sprint, Verizon, etc) to change to a different device.

And therein lies the rub. Verizon, Sprint, and other CDMA carriers maintains in its database a list of all the phones it has ever sold and is in the sales channel waiting to be sold. If you call in and try and add a phone ESN to your account that the carrier didn't sell, you will be unable to add that phone to your account. So even if you are unable to override the software lock on the CDMA phone, the carrier can still say "nope, it's not our phone, sorry, can't add it to your service." This means even if you can figure out how to override the software lock on your CDMA phone, it is unlikely you will be able to use that phone with an alternate carrier.

In short, this ruling really only makes a difference to people on GSM networks such as Cingular or T-Mobile. If you're on Sprint or Verizon, this ruling doesn't help you in the least. The only way I could see this rule being helpful is to pass a law requring carriers to allow customers to use devices they obtained outside of the carriers' normal channels provided it uses the appropriate frequency and transmission methods. In order, it would allow you to use a CDMA phone on any CDMA carrier (Assuming it's unlocked), but it wouldn't allow you to use a CDMA phone on a GSM network, and vice versa.


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