It's Time for Wireless Carriers to Shed Their Tech-Phobia

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, April 3, 2005

Some tech-conscious cell phone shoppers have a new complaint: Verizon Wireless can't hear them now, and that's not good.

What are they trying to say to that carrier? They'd like to use PalmOne's sleek Treo 650 "smartphone," which Sprint has been selling since December. They'd like more phones that use Bluetooth wireless -- and they don't want Verizon disabling parts of that feature for its own purposes. Some just want a full set of phones that are only phones, without the digital cameras banned at their workplaces.

Verizon isn't the only target of these complaints -- other carriers have done the same things. But customers who don't like the phones their carrier sells can often only switch to another service that may have worse coverage. Despite immense advances in technology, we face the same basic constraints that our grandparents did when choosing what color of rotary-dial phone to get from the Bell System: You can only buy what the phone company wants to sell.

When cell phones were used only for talking, this might not have mattered much. Now phones are the equivalent of handheld computers -- but unlike computers, they don't arrive in everybody's stores at the same time and with all their promised features intact.

There's no better example of this than carriers' iffy support for Bluetooth wireless, a technology that lets a cell phone quickly beam data to and from other nearby devices -- other phones, handheld organizers, printers or computers. Eight years after its unveiling, despite growing customer interest and increasingly widespread Bluetooth support in computers, many carriers still give Bluetooth the back of their hand.

At worst, they'll offer it only on one or two token phones, and with its more useful features disabled. Neither Sprint nor Verizon, for example support file transfer via Bluetooth. So instead of sending your camera phone's pictures to your computer via Bluetooth, you're expected to e-mail them to yourself, running up airtime and picture-messaging charges along the way.

Other convenient Bluetooth features, such as wireless address-book synchronization or the option to use a phone as a wireless modem with a Bluetooth-enabled laptop, are also often absent or shut off. It's as if some carriers regard this technology as little more than a way to sell you a $50 Bluetooth headset instead of a $10 corded model.

If you could buy your phone from a source besides your carrier -- somebody with no vested interest in steering you to expensive data services -- this wouldn't be a problem. But that's a difficult-to-impossible task in the U.S. market.

For one thing, carriers sell phones at a subsidized price that they recoup over a long stream of monthly bills. Unsubsidized models cost more, hundreds of dollars extra in some cases. For another, about half of the market can't even pay extra to use a phone their carrier doesn't sell.

Verizon, the second-largest carrier in the United States, will at least allow customers to use makes and models of phones similar to those that it offers. Sprint, the third-biggest, won't permit even that. Both say that they do this to maintain the quality of their service, although any cell phone sold must already pass testing from government and industry bodies.

These firms can exert that level of control because they don't use a system employed by the other nationwide carriers, Cingular, T-Mobile and Nextel. Those firms all sell phones that store a customer's account data on a tiny subscriber identity module (SIM) card that can be moved from one phone to another.

This SIM card is a core feature of the technology Cingular and T-Mobile use, GSM (shorthand for global system for mobile); Nextel, which uses a different system called iDEN, saw fit to adopt the SIM card as well.

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