GSM cell phones and SIM cards, the continuing story

Of cell phones, SIM cards, and questionable business practices.

Part Deux

After my first experience with GSM cell phones and Rogers, you would think I would have given up, but I am a rather stubborn person, as well as a bit impulsive on buying toys. So, I went out and bought myself a Motorola V66 while I was travelling in Asia. Fortunately, you can buy them there without a lock on them, so then you can insert anybody's SIM card into them. The V66 was a wonderful cell phone, I was very happy with it. It is small, light, has a good battery life, and I do like the flip phone design.

By the way, I found that there are a few questions on GSM cell phones from people visiting my former web-page, so I thought I address a few of them, and answer some of the common questions.

Q: How can I unlock a locked GSM phone?
A: I understand that you can buy the codes online on eBay. Actually, if you go to eBay, and type in the search criteria 'unlock code', you will literally find hundreds of offers. I personally don't support doing this, it's not really illegal, but it is a violation of the agreement with the service provider. I just wish the service providers would not play those silly games, and instead concentrate on providing good service for a fair price.

Q: Can you plug a SIM card into a CDMA phone.
A: No, it's a totally different technology. CDMA phones do not accept SIM cards. The SIM card technology is actually fantastic from the concept, because all of your identities as well as your phone numbers are actually stored on the SIM card. If you rent a car that has a GSM phone built in, you simply take your card out of your phone, plug it into the car phone, and all your incoming calls will be directed to your car-phone. As well, all your outgoing calls will go through your payment plan. If your GSM phone breaks, you can go out and buy another one anywhere, plug in your old SIM card, and vola, you are up and running again. If you can get your hands on a used GSM phone for cheap or free, you can plug the card in, instead of going to your provider and having them sell you one of their overpriced models at full price.

Q: Where do GSM phones work?
A: In many countries around the world, but support in the USA is quite bad from what I hear, and although Rogers claims to cover all of Canada, that is hardly the case. You will find that when you travel in the countryside, reception is often non-existent, especially out West where I live. GSM and CDMA technologies are totally incompatible even if they transmit in the same band. The encoding of the information is different, so a GSM phone cannot talk to a CDMA network.

Q: Can you take a GSM phone travelling?
A: Depends if you have what is called a triple frequency phone. You see, while Europe and Asia work on the 900/1800 MHz GSM band, for some reason or other North America decided to use the 1900 MHz GSM band. I am sure there is some dumb bureaucratic reason for it. In any case, there are some phones that support all of those bands, so those are the ones that will work all over the world, provided that GSM service is available in that area. On the V66 I had to switch frequencies manually, there is an option in the setup. After that you have two choices: Either you can buy a local SIM card and plug it into your phone, which gives you a local phone number with local rates, provided your phone is not locked up, or you can just sign over your house to your cellular phone company at home, because they will charge you an arm and a leg. And hope that nobody phones your local number while you are travelling, especially some phone marketer, because roaming phone calls cost even more. And should you use your normal plan, even though your phone will allow you to dial out and receive calls, chances are you will not have access to either SMS or data services including Web browsing via GPRS. I also found out that sending SMS internationally doesn't work.

So, after acquiring the V66, I went home to my friendly Rogers people to get a new Canadian SIM card for my new phone. I heard that you could get one for $25. Well, turns out, that is only a replacement card if you lost yours. How one can loose a SIM card without also loosing the phone is a bit beyond me, but okay. So they were going to charge me something like $50 for the new card. I gave the other phone to my wife because she needed one anyway, and I wanted to use mine, but $50 just for the card? So what I did was to simply take their cheapest phone, which costs $0 on a two year plan, and then took the SIM card out of that one and put it into my new one. And seeing that this other phone was also a Motorola, along with that they gave me $100 worth of free of Motorola accessories, so I bought a really nice hands free set that cost $99.95. All in all, it was a good deal, as I get to use the phone I like, I have a backup phone should my first one every break, of if I want to take something cheap to the beach or hiking, and I get a hands free set. Couldn't do that with CDMA.

Another thing that I learned about SIM cards that you buy while you are on the road is that the minutes you buy are only good for a certain amount of time. So if you buy a card that is good for six months, and then you buy a small recharge before you leave, because you know you will be back, that recharge might only be good for a month, even though this is a six month card. So when I got back to Europe three month later, my time had expired. And if you don't recharge your card within the six months that it is good for, then it expires and becomes worthless. The funny part is that, when you buy a little SIM card for, say, 30 euros in Europe, you get 30 euros of talk time, and the SIM card is free. So why does Rogers charge you $50 for it, and you don't get anything but the card? And if you buy one from Fido, it's exactly the same thing, the card costs you money, and then you start adding usage to it after that. And even those will expire after a certain time of not having been used. Hmmm, very strange. Maybe the fact that these companies hold a virtual Monopoly has something to do with it?

As for unlocking a phone that is locked, I have never tried to do it myself, as I have alternatives, but I suppose it's pretty easy. It does cancel your warranty, of course, but if this is a phone that is at the end of it's plan, I guess it won't matter much. I mean, in a way I understand the whole thing from the Rogers point of view, they give you a basically free phone, now they want to get their money back from having you locked in. But as you are on a plan, and there is pretty well no way you can get out of that plan, why would it matter if you used the phone with somebody else's card? You still have to pay your base charge for the one, two, or three years, and the other SIM will charge you for your minutes as well. It gets even better: They get to charge $20 a month but provide absolutely no service for it. What a deal! So even though I can understand the motivation, I don't believe in it. In fact, I am looking at the different markets around the world, and I find that the ones that have less of these Monopolies have a much larger market. You lessen the cost of entry, then people are more likely to buy from you. I mean, why charge somebody for your SIM card if they want to spend their hard earned money to buy minutes on your network? Wouldn't you think that people would flock to the network with the lowest cost of entry, i.e. zero, and then spend lots of money talking? It is obvious that the people in phone companies don't believe in the concepts of the free market economy.

Cell phones, Palm PDAs, and bluetooth. The story continues

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