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Text messaging at the beach (PhotoAlto/Michele Constantini/Getty Images/PhotoAlto)
Text messaging at the beach (PhotoAlto/Michele Constantini/Getty Images/PhotoAlto)

Mobile Phones

Why I picked an unlocked phone Add to ...

There’s something to be said for having cellphone reception in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. But more impressive is how little it costs. Forget outrageous roaming charges. In fact, forget Canadian carriers at all.

On an island off the coast of Portugal, 15 euros got me a SIM card and 300MB of data from European provider Vodafone. Setup took minutes. And my phone – otherwise loyal to Telus – was left none the wiser.

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Of course, it’s not always this easy. Typically, phones are sold locked. That means a phone, bought on contract from Rogers, for example, can only be used with Rogers; not Bell, not Telus.

But not mine. I have an unlocked phone, and one that can accept SIM cards from almost any carrier. I’ve had it for a year. And I haven’t looked back.

On previous trips with my Telus SIM, I was warned that each megabyte could cost as much as $25 without a roaming package – the price of a fancy local meal, or a taxi ride, perhaps. As someone who guzzles, on average, nearly one gigabyte per month, this would not do. And I’m not alone, either.

“New travellers often don’t have this information,” explains WIND Mobile chairman and CEO Anthony Lacevera. “Many people come to us having experience roaming costs and want to avoid that.”

That’s because WIND is one of the few carriers that offers unlocked phones like mine – a growing trend in the industry. After three months, WIND will unlock a customer’s handset for free, allowing them to go to whichever carrier they wish.

Or, in my case, to another country entirely.

But not all carriers are so kind. Some, such as Virgin Mobile, charge upwards of $75 just to have a phone unlocked – and that’s assuming you’ve satisfied all of the other caveats and obligations of your contract, such as repaying the remaining price of your subsidized phone.

Carriers will cite a myriad of excuses for this fee – Rogers says it’s an industry standard – but that’s something Dr. Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair of Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, doesn’t buy.

“It’s totally unreasonable,” he says, bluntly, in a phone interview. “We’re talking about a three minute job that’s the click of a few buttons.”

And when Dr. Geist says it only takes the click of a few buttons, he’s not kidding.

It’s a process that members of Redflagdeals.com have discussed in detail for years, posting links, guides and tutorials for a myriad of modern phones.

The online site, though largely dedicated to sharing sales and deals, has an active forum where members discuss everything from unlocking previously locked phones to buying new models for cheap.

And instead of paying a pricey carrier a fee to unlock their phone, a customer can potentially use the site’s resources and combined knowledge to do it for free.

“Unlocked phones have been out there for ever, but what we’re providing is a venue for people to discuss [them]” explained Derek Szeto, the site’s founder. And thanks to the information that communities such as Red Flag Deals help proliferate, the mobile industry has “become a much more open ecosystem where not everything is locked down.”

But for some, an alternative lies elsewhere – with the hardware manufacturers themselves. Last year, for example, Google sold its first company-branded Android handset – the Nexus One – unlocked from its online store. Apple’s iPhone 4 is also sold unlocked when purchased through its retail stores.

Meanwhile, websites such as Tiger Direct and Newegg sell a vast selection of unlocked phones from a variety of manufacturers, such as Samsung and Nokia.

And with that sort of popularity, remarks Dr. Geist, “I think there’s a clear shift moving form the carriers to he device manufacturers.

But there is a catch – most notably in terms of cost. The price of an unlocked phone is not subsidized in the same way as a contract phone. Rarely will you get the same steep discounts as with a carrier-locked phone from Bell or Rogers.

For some, the cost is worth it, especially compared to what they might be saving in roaming charges while abroad. But that’s not to say a foreign carrier’s service without caveats of its own.

In fact, as Rogers’ Raj Doshi, vice-president of mobile product management rightly points out, it’s easy to forget that a foreign SIM is exactly that – foreign.

“There’s a loss of connectivity. You lose your number. It’s almost like a pay phone,” said Mr. Doshi. “Your phone won’t work unless you’ve communicated your number to all your friends and family.”

Worse still, there’s no guarantee your phone will even work. Because of the way mobile networks operate, not all cellphones use the same wireless bands. In Canada, for example, Rogers, Telus and Bell operate on the HSPA network, while WIND and Mobilicity rely on AWS.

That means preliminary research is crucial in ensuring that a similar provider, with a similar network, exists at your destination. Still, it’s a small price to pay, considering what you might save.

“Unlocked phones are a very easy issue for consumers to fight for, and a very difficult one for carriers to defend,” explains Dr. Geist.

And if a phone is paid for, “its simply unacceptable” that a customer shouldn’t be able to unlock that phone and take it wherever they like.

Even if that means an island in the middle of the Atlantic.

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