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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.

One Response

  1. mike freeman Says

    Until AMERICAN Cdma handsets incorporate a standard like the RUIM card, a cdma version of the gsm sim card, it will continue to be possible to bring your own device to a US carrier, but not as easy as swapping sim cards. In India and China, the only way cdma has been able to get traction at all is this cdma bypass. The cdma Ruim card has elements that are compatible EVEN with GSM phones on a base level. Therefore, a Cdma Ruim from say Virgin Mobile India should be able to be swapped into an unlocked gsm phone with interchangeable functionality. In other words, it will work. They have to offer this in places where gsm and prepaid reigns supreme (Like EU/Asia) or they simply won’t be able to compete.

    Sprint, Verizon and most US (and Canadian) cdma carriers have eschewed this going for the inherently more secure (and closed ) US cdma model.

    But despite that, “flashers” have been able to succeed because of networks like Metro , Cricket , most cdma regional independent unlimiteds offer it. The independents need this as a differentiating advantage against the big boys.

    Plus, it allows them to “offer” an end user the latest handsets that normally wouldn’t be offered until the Big Two (Sprint /Verizon) got to get the lion’s share of the profits through their channels only first.

    Most Cdma handsets offered in the US that are top of the line Flagship models like the Palm Pre, the Droid and others are “exclusive” for a set period of time. Usually six months to a year. This allows the “exclusive” carrier the headstart of offering the latest and greatest before anyone else.

    Flashing bypasses that advantage and hands the ball to the independents. Verizon/Sprint hate this but they can’t really do anything about it the way it is now. In fact, they would be contradicting their so called “Open device development initiative” trumpeted with much fanfare about two years ago (but has turned out to be so much BS propaganda).

    Unless a law is passed outright banning all cdma flashing, the practice will continue. The byod genie is out of the bottle and it is difficult to put back in. A common question on phone forums is “Can I use my xxx phone on yyy network?” It happens single day.

    There are different degrees of byod among the prepaid carriers. Some like Virgin Mobile and Tracfone are completely closed. No other devices can be used on their systems, BUT their own branded devices. No exceptions. Verizon mvnos/resellers for the most part allow Verizon phones onto their networks (with the major exception of Straight Talk, which is a Tracfone company anyway). Most Sprint mvnos DO NOT allow it, therefore explaining why byod was killed at Liberty (though Sprint may have been wrong on legal grounds about this) . If you get a Sprint prepaid, most of the times you are STUCK with their phones for that one brand. Sprint mvnos compensate by having generous unlimited plans and low rates in general.

    Gsm /iden mvnos offer the most flexibility because of the sim issues (again with the exception of any Tracfone gsm company, which have gsm handsets locked up harder then some cdma carriers ).

    Though even gsm carriers use tricks (like Att’s infamous orange /white gophone sim which locks your sim to ONE phone for six months once activated, unless you bypass it via a dealer or another (non simlocked type) sim.

    The rumored “worldmode” hybrid cdma/gsm chip Qualcomm based iPhone may launch a new wave of unlockers /flashers. A universal model that can run on ANY cdma or gsm network if properly configured. The holy grail of phone flashers/unlockers.

    We will all have to wait and see.

    Page Plus is a company with an unofficial byod policy. Without it, it would not have gained its rapid popularity (combined with Verizon coverage and a low priced unlimited talk/text plan). If they lose byod, they will lose much business.

    Metro advertises byod, but they also limit it to only models on their approved list and only to talk /text/

    Leap/Cricket uses a Metro type centrally controlled flashing system, but they (unlike Metro) allow independently flashed phones with things like phones not on the official list and features like web/mms that their regular flashing software cannot activate.

    My big fear is if there is a merger between the two, Leap’s independent flashing days will be over and they will all be forced to use Metroflash only not allowing any phone leeway.

    Metro’s policy of no unofficially flashed phones being allowed is an ironic restriction on an unrestricted action. We will allow byod, but ONLY what we say is okay.


    Posted on January 20th, 2010 at 9:41 pm

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