3 Things you need to consider before your purchase
With Bell and TELUS having upgraded their network technology to HSPA it now means the Big 3 cell phone carriers (Bell, Rogers, Telus) have compatible 3G networks. For us – subscribers – we now have the ability to purchase unlocked phones and activate them on “any” of the carriers’ networks or take an existing compatible device and activate it with any carrier. So what’s the catch? Well, unless you are a tech wizard, this process can be very confusing. The good news, however, is that the stage is set for Canada’s cell phone gray market (i.e. swapping/activating of cell phones between carriers) to increase, but before purchasing an unlocked phone or having one unlocked, you must do your homework first. In addition to getting the technical details right other potential issues could be purchasing a stolen or fraudulently obtained device so if it’s too good to be true it probably is.
Navigating the unlocked cell phone market can be tricky for customers that aren’t tech savvy so let let’s break it down. The first thing you need to know is that all cellular devices sold by Bell, Rogers or Telus are locked to their network, hence the need to purchase an unlocked cellphone from some other source or have a compatible device unlocked in order to use it. In Europe it is illegal for a carrier to lock phones to their network but in Canada that’s not the case, so before you purchase that new cell phone you need to be sure it will work on the cell phone provider’s network.
Step 1: Make sure the cell phone is compatible with the carrier’s network
So how do you know if your cell phone is compatible with the cell phone provider’s network? In order to check compatibility you have to check your IMEI (International Mobile Equipment ID) number to determine if it will work on their network. The IMEI number is a 15-18 digit number that uniquely identifies every device and is located on the back of your device. If you have a CDMA device it will not be compatible on the newer 3G networks but some unlocked CDMA devices can be activated between Bell and Telus and vice versa. One quick litmus test is whether or not your cellphone uses a SIM card. CDMA devices do not have a SIM but rather an ESN number on the back of the phone, whereas GSM/HSPA devices have the IMEI number. If 3G is where you’re at and you have the IMEI number you can check the compatibility of your device with the carrier. Most new smart phones will be compatible on Bell, Rogers or Telus’ new 3G network. At the time of writing Wind Mobile is operating in the Toronto and Calgary area. Wind Mobile runs an AWS (Advanced Wireless Spectrum) network. Without going into too much detail, Wind Mobile’s network runs on a 1700 MHZ frequency. This is probably a good time to mention that the iPhone will not work on Wind Mobile’s network. Given the infancy of Wind Mobile’s network I thought it would be useful to list a few options that are compatible on their network as of writing. There are the Nokia 900, Google Nexus (rumor has it Wind Mobile will carry this device first) and any T-mobile US unlocked 3G phone.
NOTE: If you purchase a device before checking the IMEI number and it happens to be stolen the carrier it was stolen from will have that device flagged in their database. In the near future, however, there is a very likely possiblity that the Big3 may come together to compare notes. In otherwords, set up a Global database of IMEI numbers which would thwart movement between carriers, making your new – albeit stolen - device useless. So in short, before you make your purchase get the IMEI number, call the carrier and check for compatibility or you might just waste $400+ dollars.
Step 2: Purchase a SIM card from the carrier you plan on activating with
You can do this online with any of the providers or you can purchase from any of their retail locations. A SIM card allows you to connect your mobile device to the cell phone provider’s network. A SIM card will costs you anywhere from $10 – $50. If you already have the device or have a friend with the same device you can have the carrier insert a test SIM card to check if the device will function as expected. This is the surest way to confirm compatibility but may not be practical in many instances.
Step 3: Find a cell phone plan and activate your device.
This is where the rubber may appear to come off the road. Why? Well, because the major carriers will only offer promotional plan pricing – plans available for the phone on discount – if you are willing to activate your smart phone on a combo plan (i.e. voice and data plan) with a 3 year contract. The way they justify it, is that you will get a discounted rate for committing to a term of 3 years – nothing shorter. A combo plan is a plan that has voice and data already, so if you are willing to sign a 3 year contract, despite the fact that you already own your unlocked cell phone, you will qualify for the promotional pricing. If you don’t agree and believe me, this is a point of contention, you will have to purchase a voice plan separately and the data plan separately which will costs you more money per month than the combo plan.
So there you have it, the savings for going with the promotional pricing just seem to contradict the very reason that you bought the unlocked phone outright. As a Canadian cell phone subscriber I feel like my hands are tied once again. My decision is easy, however, I will eat the extra $5 or $10 per month, forgo the promotional pricing and keep my freedom. That way if something better surfaces at any time, I am free to go. At the time of writing these are the cards we were dealt, but hopefully things will change – SOON. If you’re in the same position let me know what you decide and share your experience with all.