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Unlocking a Phone Loses Access to Data Network? Wrong!

Daniel Eran over at Roughly Drafted attempts to deconstruct several “myths” about the Apple iPhone. I take exception with one point he makes:

Shortly before the iPhone’s release, Dean Hall, a seven year software engineer for Motorola, explained in an email the limited usability of an unlocked phone:

“When a phone is unlocked it loses its privileges on a provider’s data network.  An unlocked phone can make GSM calls and send basic SMS.  No MMS, no Internet, no iTS.  Apple would either have to reverse engineer a method to gain access to the data network (unlikely as most data networks require SSL-level security to access) or it would have to offer something different.”

This person he quotes at Motorola is, to put it politely, misinformed, at least with respect to GSM phones. I frequently get unlocked Nokia handsets. The latest Nokia smartphones will recognize the SIM I have plugged in and will automatically configure themselves to use whatever data network is appropriate for the SIM. No reverse engineering required. Even if you’re not lucky enough to have one of those phones, Nokia provides a tool that does the heavy lifting for you. They will send a series of messages to your phone that will configure it for you. Free of charge (well, except for what you pay for the incoming SMS).

Now I have seen some phones obtained from a carrier–particularly T-Mobile in the US–where the carrier customizations have made it impossible to change the settings for the data network. In this specific case, Hall is right. However, if you are able to flash the phone with unbranded firmware, this issue can be overcome.

So back to the iPhone: if Apple designed their phone correctly, when you plug in a SIM, the phone will automatically know what carrier it is on and know what settings it should use for things like MMS and GPRS/EDGE. Nokia’s done that for a year or two, I would expect Apple could do the same thing very easily. It’s also the kind of thing I would expect Apple to do. They are going to have to do this in Europe, where the majority of customers buy their mobile phones separately from their service.

In short, I don’t buy the fact that an unlocked phone can’t use “someone else’s” data network. The real question is: is the Apple iPhone SIM locked, meaning it will only accept a Cingular SIM? Can it be unlocked? It sounds like at least it won’t have carrier branding, though obviously the visual voicemail won’t work on networks other than Cingular.


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