Overseas, most cell phones are already "unlocked"

by LESLIE CAULEY, Indianapolis Star

Are you unlocked?

If you live in the United States, probably not. Wireless devices here are generally "locked" by carriers so that they work only with that carrier's network and software applications.

In Europe, the situation is just the opposite: Phones are typically "unlocked," enabling wireless customers to switch carriers and applications with ease.

Unlocked phones, by definition, are based on GSM technology. Why: Only GSM devices use SIM cards - tiny chips that relay user identification information to carriers.

Devices based on CDMA technology, the other major standard in the United States, don't have SIM cards. Instead, customer information is imbedded directly into the phone itself.

AT&T and T-Mobile are GSM shops. Verizon Wireless and Sprint embrace CDMA. The two technologies are not compatible. GSM is used by about 85 percent of the world's wireless population, making it the most popular standard, by far.

Why unlock?

If you have a favorite phone, you can take it with you when you switch carriers, says David Rowell, publisher of The Travel Insider, a free Web-based newsletter that tracks travel-related technology. U.S. carriers "never used to unlock phones, but that is changing," he says.

The biggest benefit of unlocking: cheap, overseas calling. By swapping out the local SIM card with an international one, Rowell says, U.S. wireless customers can enjoy free incoming calls, cheaper roaming and reduced per-minute rates.

"That's the key money issue" with unlocking, he says.

Another benefit: freedom to load on any application.

Locked phones are limited to carrier-approved applications. Unlocked phones can be used to download a range of applications, though some limitations may apply depending on the network the device is being used with, notes Pete Skarzynski, a senior vice president at Samsung.

On the downside, he says, those who choose to load their own applications might miss out on software applications and other "goodies" that carriers offer.

Unlocking policies vary.

T-Mobile will unlock a phone after 90 days, providing the account is in "good standing," says spokesman Peter Dobrow.

AT&T will unlock phones for customers once they have fulfilled their contracts, which typically run one to two years. One big exception: Apple's iPhone, distributed exclusively in the United States by AT&T. "That's different," says AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel.

article originally published at http://indystar.gns.gannett.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070823/TECH03/70308....

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