US comes late to the unlocking party as travellers weigh benefits

Posted on by Mike Evans

Good news that iPhone buyers in the United States are now able to buy unlocked phones, even at a high price. Experience in countries such as the UK, where unlocked phones have been available for some time, shows clearly that people will pay upwards of £600 for a device that can be used on any network and without a long contract commitment. Getting a cheap phone deal in return for a long contract is a bit like signing up for hire purchase. In the long run it’s cheaper to pay cash and have the flexibility that goes with it.

It’s not just the freedom at home that spurs sales of unlocked phones. Here in Europe we are used to buying no-strings pay-as-you-go SIM cards and using them in neighbouring countries in order to avoid penal roaming charges. In this sense, the long-contract guy is doubly disadvantaged. Not only can he not switch carriers, he is forced to pay through the nose when travelling abroad.

It’s strange, then, that foreign use hasn’t been to the fore of the argument in the USA. On the contrary, much attention has been paid to the absolute need for a Verizon phone, using the oddball CMDA¹ system. I can only surmise that Verizon customers never USA or, perhaps, take their vacations in South Korea, one of the few places outside the US where CMDA is usable (India is another). CMDA is about as international as American football.

Maybe this explains why Apple’s home country is so late to the unlocking part. I suspect it has something to do with the original AT&T contractual arrangements, made at a time when even Apple didn’t know whether or not the iPhone would fly. At that time Apple needed the strength and support of AT&T to get the device off the ground. Now the networks are junior partners in the enterprise and Apple can make the decisions.


¹ CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) is a military technology first used during World War II by English allies to foil German attempts at jamming transmissions. The allies decided to transmit over several frequencies, instead of one, making it difficult for the Germans to pick up the complete signal. Because Qualcomm created communications chips for CDMA technology, it was privy to the classified information. Once the information became public, Qualcomm claimed patents on the technology and became the first to commercialise it. (Source Webopedia)

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