The PhoneBoy Blog


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Where are the unlocked GSM phones?

If you follow the telecom news, you’ve undoubted heard or read that Radio Shack is going to start selling Cingular service in their stores, replacing Verizon Wireless as one of their partners. The other partner, Sprint, whom Radio Shack had also been reselling for some time, had gotten their contract renewed for 11 years. Cingular just signed up for 10 years. That’s a pretty long time.

According to the various news reports, Radio Shack says it was attracted to a deal with Cingular because it gives the retailer an entry into the GSM marketplace. Renewing the deal with Sprint keeps it in the CDMA space and the iDEN space as well, if Sprint’s merger with Nextel is permited by the feds. Way to hedge your bets there, Radio Shack.

Aside from hedging their bets technology wise, why would Radio Shack want to include GSM in their product portfolio? Cingular, being the 800-pound gorilla as far as GSM carriers go in the USA, is certainly a good carrier to have as a business partner if you’re selling phones. But the nice thing about the way GSM is implemented is that the handsets are designed to be portable between carriers. Oh sure, the carriers subsidy lock the handsets and use custom firmware, but generally speaking, the phones can be unlocked and used on different carriers. I have unlocked every single one of the Nokia phones I bought thru AT&T Wireless back in the day. When I migrated over to Cingular (just after the merger between the two companies), all of my phones worked with my new-fangled Cingular SIM. Oh sure, I had to manually program the settings, and the phones still have all the AT&T Wireless junk on them, but the phones still work in all the important ways.

Radio Shack getting a GSM carrier onboard as a partner gives Radio Shack a perfect opportunity to begin selling non-carrier specific GSM handsets, i.e. handsets without subsidy locks or carrier branding. These handsets could be sold either non-subsidized for people who don’t want contract extensions or, if you were willing to sign a contract with Cingular, with a small subsidy. It would allow Radio Shack to sell the same GSM handsets nationwide since they wouldn’t have to worry if Cingular offered coverage in that area, just make sure there’s a GSM carrier nearby. That’s gotta be easier than having to deal with carrier-specific phones in different markets.

Of course, I’m sure something in the contract with Cingular probably forbids Radio Shack from selling unlocked GSM handsets, either that or the folks at Radio Shack aren’t forward-thinking enough to do this themselves. Sigh. Meanwhile, you buy non-carrier specific versions of some Nokia models from Nokia USA.


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