Our first contenders are the Blackberry 9530 Storm and the Blackberry 9550 Storm 2. Upon first glance there are only slight differences, especially in their physical structure. For instance, the 9530 Storm 1 has physical buttons below it’s screen, while the 9550 storm 2 has those buttons melded into the touchscreen display, making them touch as oppose to separate buttons. The other buttons are all physical on both devices, but the Storm 2 has more of a streamlined look, while the storm 1 has buttons that pop out of the body more with a chrome finish.
The term “unlocked” refers to GSM phones that have been universalized, or unlocked, so that they may be used on a variety of cellular phone companies that use GSM, as opposed to simply one. In areas like the United States where cellular carriers offer free or deeply discounted phones with cell plans, the phones are commonly locked so that they will not work with other carriers. Once unlocked, however, the phone should work with any GSM carrier once a SIM card has been inserted into phone.
For the consumer, the answer is yes. The law on this topic is called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). This act was originally created to prevent people from using technology to get around copyright – protected barriers that have been placed in the software of electronic devices such as cell phones. This act, originally, made it illegal to unlock your cell phone so that it could be used with a carrier other than the carrier for whom the device was originally produced. In November of 2006, however, an exemption was passed that allows consumers to unlock their cell phones “for the sole purpose of lawfully connecting to a wireless telephone communication network.” This exemption makes it legal for a consumer to unlock their cell phone (or purchase an unlocked cell phone) as long as the only reason they are doing it is to use the phone with a different carrier. This was great news for consumers, but the exemption was only approved for three years. In November of this year (2009), the Librarian of Congress will have to issue a re-ruling of this act.
Naturally, several major companies are strongly apposed to allowing people to have their cell phones re-programmed, but there are several companies who are pushing to further the allowances approved in the current exemption. MetroPCS, Pocket Communications, and The Wireless Alliance have all submitted proposals very similar to the original exemption, but they have all requested that the original wording be changed to allow the unlocking of cell phones “regardless of commercial motive,” which would basically make it legal to unlock cell phones for any reason. This would greatly benefit the companies who purchase large amounts of phones and unlock them with the sole purpose of selling them for a profit.
Companies like CTIA, Apple, and Virgin Mobile are strongly apposed to any modification to cellular products. These companies are arguing that unlocking a cell phone breaks more than just the “lock” that prevents a phone from being used with a different carrier, and it damages other software that can cause the phone to function improperly. They argue that altering a phone, which, in turn, will cause it to work improperly, creates a false image of the company whose logo is printed on the device.
Until November, as a consumer, you are not violating any laws by having your cell phone unlocked if you do it so that you can use your phone with a different carrier. Purchasing an unlocked cell phone is also completely safe as you, the consumer, did not actually unlock the phone. It seems unlikely that the Librarian of Congress would remove the exemption allowing consumers to have their phones unlocked. What remains to be seen is whether or not they will vote to allow the unlocking of cell phones “regardless of commercial motive.”
Quite simple, the answer is no. When consumers see the term ‘unlocked’ in reference to cellular phones, it is most almost certainly being used to describe a GSM phone. To truly understand what an unlocked cell phone is, you need to have a basic knowledge of GSM and CDMA technology.
In the North American markets, and Latin American markets for that matter, GSM and CDMA are the two technologies that the dominant service providers use. What most easily distinguishes one from the other is that GSM carriers require phones that use SIM cards, and CDMA phones do not. Here is a brief breakdown on what technology the dominant carriers in the USA use: T-Mobile, AT&T/Cingular, and Nextel (Not Sprint/Nextel) use GSM technology, and Alltel, Cellular South, US Cellular, Sprint/Nextel, and Verizon use CDMA technology.
Because T-Mobile, AT&T/Cingular, and Nextel use GSM technology, their phones require SIM cards, which are portable memory chips that go into the back of these phones. When you sign up for a service plan with one of these service providers, your account registers to your SIM card and not to the actual phone (which is the case with CDMA phones). This technology allows you to remove, lets say, your T-Mobile SIM card from your T-Mobile phone and place it in any other T-Mobile phone and use that new phone with your account, instantly.
This is where “unlocking” phones comes into play. The phones that are produced for T-Mobile, AT&T/Cingular, and Nextel are programmed to only recognize their own company’s SIM cards. When one of these GSM phones is unlocked, however, it will then recognize any SIM card from pretty much any other GSM carrier. The ability to unlock GSM phones greatly benefits consumers who have service plans with GSM companies. Lets say that T-Mobile makes the same version of your AT&T phone, but the T-Mobile phone has a camera and yours does not. All you need to do is purchase an unlocked T-Mobile version, and you can now use that camera phone with your AT&T service.
GSM technology is arguably the worldwide standard as well, so purchasing an unlocked GSM phone makes world travel very convenient. Lets say that you are a T-Mobile customer with an unlocked cell phone, and you book a vacation to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Instead of paying international rate charges for using your phone in Mexico, you can simply purchase a pre-paid SIM card from a Mexican cellular company, like TelCel, and use it with your unlocked phone.
There are some features that work only with a phone designed for a specific carrier, though, so a consumer interested in purchasing an unlocked cell phone should definitely check with their service provider to make sure that the features that the need will work with an unlocked phone.