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What lies in the future for CDMA handset flashing?

CDMA networks offer many advantages over their GSM counterparts, but in one area GSM remains superior: handset portability. GSM networks use SIM cards to identify users, so theoretically the users can take this SIM card from handset to handset and the carrier can keep straight who is who. In practice, carriers lock phones to their networks, so there’s an extra step to take before you can plop your SIM card into any old phone. CDMA networks, however, do not use SIM cards, so their handsets cannot be unlocked by normal means. Instead, they have to be reflashed. The problem is that carriers do not want you taking a handset from carrier to carrier, so finding someone to reflash your phone has become a chore.

In his latest column on FierceWireless, Mike Dano explores the CDMA flashing issue. He does note that MetroPCS will flash CDMA handsets, thereby making them compatible with the Metro network, but they’re the only carrier who advertises this. He doesn’t mention Page Plus, probably because they wont flash any old CDMA handset. They will, however, activate Verizon phones, which they can do because they’re an MVNO operating on the Verizon network. Strangely, Verizon itself flashes handsets under some circumstances.

So will handset flashing become more of an issue in the future? We might soon find out, as Boost Mobile currently will not allow Sprint customers to take their handsets to Boost’s CDMA side, despite the two carriers operating under the same ownership. Because not all customers are free to switch from Sprint to Boost right away — that’s a two-year contract for you — this issue will take time to build up. But as more and more Sprint users finish out their contracts and want to move to Boost’s $50 unlimited plan, we might hear some more clamoring for portability.

Will Boost and Sprint help bring the issue to a head for the rest of the wireless industry? Perhaps, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Carriers will still insist that you’re better off buying one of their own handsets, which they configure to work optimally with the network. Of course, buying a handset from them means taking a subsidy, which in turn means signing a two-year contract. And as we know, wireless carriers love contracts, as it brings predictable income. But if a customer doesn’t accept a subsidy, what forces them to sign a contract?

Many issues affect the reasons why CDMA carriers will or will not flash devices. Some of them, like Liberty Wireless, want to, but can’t because their parent operator says no. In fact, I’m willing to bet that most non-major-operator prepaid carriers would like to flash handsets to their network. It gives them an edge in attracting subscribers. Which would explain why the operators that own the networks don’t want them doing it.