A Cell Phone Conundrum And The Wireless Wrangle

angry_cell_phone_user_1_t250I found this item in Parade Magazine yesterday, which tells us what many have known for some time; namely, that for all of the invention and entrepreneurship that went into the development of the Internet and personal computers in this country, the exact opposite has happened in the area of cell phone technology…

Cellphones in the U.S. transmit data more slowly than phones in Europe and have fewer features than those in Asia, where you can make calls on the subway or use your handset like a credit card. According to Kent German of Cnet.com, a technology website, “The U.S. is going to be behind for a long time.”

Why? Competition. Carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM, a network that works in a completely different way from CDMA, the one used by Sprint and Verizon. Phones are not compatible across networks, and customers can’t roam between them. Because Europe and many countries in Asia decided years ago to adopt a single cellular network, GSM, their infrastructure works with all kinds of phones, and developers can add more bells and whistles.

German also tells us that, because there was no standard network agreed upon by Sprint and Verizon, it will be harder to develop across platforms than upon a single environment.

All of this makes me scratch my head a bit as I read the following from Larry Magid, the technology correspondent from CBS News, who tells us here that…

Even though most phones from (Sprint and Verizon) are configured to access cellular networks that are totally incompatible with the GSM (Global System for Mobil) networks used in Europe, Australia, parts of Asia, Africa and much of the rest of world, both companies do offer phones that are also capable of accessing GSM networks overseas.

To enable GSM, you need a Subscriber Identity Module (or SIM) Card. All GSM-compatible phones have a slot for this card, as Magid tells us.

However, get a load of this (in the third paragraph)…

Sprint’s world phones are unlocked, which means you can buy a SIM card in the local country and pay much lower rates. In some cases, it costs as little as 10 or 15 cents a minute for outgoing calls and nothing for incoming calls.

The Verizon phone is locked, but upon request Verizon can provide an unlocked code. There are also third parties and Internet sites that, for a one-time fee, will unlock most but not all locked GSM phones or provide you a code to unlock it yourself. I’ve used, an independent cell phone dealer to unlock phones that I and family members have used when traveling overseas.

When you’re using a SIM card you buy abroad, callers have to dial into the country where you bought the card. So if you bought a SIM card in Spain, callers would have to dial a Spanish phone number to reach you. If you then traveled to France and bought a French SIM card, they would have to dial a French number.


Another option, especially useful if you plan to travel to different countries, is to purchase a global SIM card. Sim4Travel.com and GoSim.com sell cards that can be used in most countries at rates starting at about 60 cents a minute to call back to the United States. It may not be as inexpensive as buying a local SIM card, but you get to use the same number in each country and it’s cheaper than paying international roaming rates through your U.S. carrier.

For the purposes of disclosure, I should point out that I don’t do a lot of travelling in my job, and it has not involved overseas travel to date. I imagine that a tech-savvy traveler can figure out how to negotiate using a wireless device across multiple countries and continents. But, as a third-party observer to this situation, I think having to buy a SIM card in each country I happen to visit is pretty damn silly (and the “workaround for a nominal fee” of buying the global GSM card sounds to me like something else you shouldn’t have to pay for).

With this in mind, I’ll defer to Wall Mossberg of the Murdoch Street Journal here, who, though he seems to summarize this situation nicely, blames the wrong people for the problem…

…it’s intolerable that the same country that produced (all kinds of innovative PC and web-based technologies) has trapped its citizens in a backward, stifling system when it comes to the next great technology platform, the cellphone.

A shortsighted and often just plain stupid federal government has allowed itself to be bullied and fooled by a handful of big wireless phone operators for decades now. And the result has been a mobile phone system that is the direct opposite of the PC model. It severely limits consumer choice, stifles innovation, crushes entrepreneurship, and has made the U.S. the laughingstock of the mobile-technology world, just as the cellphone is morphing into a powerful hand-held computer.

Oh, right, I forgot; we’re talking about the Murdoch Street Journal here, so it’s imperative that “government” be blamed for the greed and short-sighted ignorance of the carriers who are supposed to be the technological innovators in this scenario.

And as long as the Journal has spoken out so eloquently about the importance of PC and web innovation in this country by helping to foster “one of the greatest technological revolutions in human history, as well as one of the greatest spurts of wealth creation and of consumer empowerment,” you would think they would be equally dedicated to the cause of Net Neutrality, wouldn’t you?

Well, as Tim Karr, campaign director for SaveTheInternet.com told us here a couple of weeks ago…

We are now on the cusp of making history for an open Internet. But don’t tell that to the Wall Street Journal, which today published an article that portrayed the movement for Net Neutrality as losing steam.

Say what?

Contrary to claims of the Journal that Net Neutrality forces are receding, we are actually closer now than ever before to victory. We have arrived at the moment when Net Neutrality has its greatest appeal, clearest need, and best chance of becoming law.

Our opponents will try to divide and distract us. But now is not the time to retreat but to move forward.

Yep, true to form, the Journal, in its best “concern troll” mode, wants to help propagate the lie that the forces in favor of Net Neutrality are all but ready to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, as it were, by (as Mossberg did) giving a pass to the parties truly at fault, as others have done concerning the telcos and their stifling of cell phone technology in this country by failing to adopt the GSM standard already used throughout much of the world.

Government isn’t innocent, I know, but it also isn’t responsible for the technology itself. However, you can bet that they will be blamed by Mossberg (a tech-savvy guy otherwise) and his brethren all the same.

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