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2004-06-09

LA lawsuit filed vs ATT Wireless, T-Mobile for 'locking' cellphones

Class Action Lawsuit Filed in California Against Major US GSM Carriers for Subsidy Locks

If you have a cellphone, it was probably 'locked' to the cellular company which provides you service. T-Mobile will unlock phones on request after three months, and a few carries don't lock them in the first place, replying on their quality of service to keep you with the company (Verizon comes to mind, IIRC).

It's a little easier nowadays to change from one cell phone carrier to another, as a result of Number Portability (more info here). You can file with your new phone company to have your old number move to your new company (and this applies to wired phone companies as well, like if you decided to change from Qworst to Vonage for your phone service. A few small telcos are exempted; see this list.

That ease of changing is nicknamed 'churn', and it drives the cellular companies berzerk. It requires them to actually provide service to make you want to stay with them. So, US carriers (with Canadian carriers following suit) came up with the idea of the 'subsidy lock'.

Euros don't do subsidy locks, and their cellphones with the same features cost about the same (considering exchange rates). So, this is just another 'profit center' for US cellular carriers, and another hole in your pocket.

Well, now the same consumer activist group which sued NExtel over billing fraud has sued the top three US GSM carriers over 'subsidy locks'.

GSM (Global Systemé Mobilé) is the Euro standard for digital cellular, and technically, is very similar to both the iDEN system used by Nextel and the TDMA system used originally by ATT. Technical, yes, but not voodoo science like the black arts of CDMA used by Sprint, Qworst, and Verizon.

Over a billion GSM users world wide; so, you should be able to take your handset with you when you change carriers, right? Well, because the frequencies the US started with (around 850MHz and 1900MHz) were not available in Europe (900MHz and 1800MHz), you need to make sure the phone works on the frequency your new carrier uses; hence, 'dual-band', 'tri-band' and 'quad-band' phones.

But, the US carriers lock the phone so you can't take it with you to a new cellular carrier, even if you move overseas. The lawsuit is designed to stop the practice, so your phone is, well, your phone, to do with as you wish. Good idea.


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