home security researchActing FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn will likely have a few months to leave her mark – and one of the issues she has chosen to champion is cellphone unlocking.

“I support policies that enable consumers to lawfully unlock their mobile telephones, so they can seamlessly move from one carrier to another,” said Clyburn in a statement issued yesterday. “While wireless carriers should be able to enforce their valid customer contracts, the unlocking provisions need to be grounded in common sense and practical application. . . I’ve directed the FCC staff to redouble our efforts with partners across the administration and industry to explore all of our available options for a quick resolution.”

CTIA- The Wireless Association Vice President Scott Bergmann responded this morning with a statement of his own saying that the CTIA “looks forward to working with the commission” but also noting that the industry already offers a wide range of cellphone unlocking options. He noted, for example, that there are already more than 240 unlocked devices available for purchase from a wireless carrier, retail store or directly from the manufacturer.

He suggested that the matter might be addressed through education, stating that CTIA would like to work with the FCC to “ensure that consumers are aware of the wide variety of unlocked devices that are available.”

The interoperability issue
What neither Clyburn nor Bergmann mentioned is that cellphone unlocking increasingly will be irrelevant unless more is done to make handsets interoperable.

The reason is that as the major carriers roll out 4G networks based on LTE, each one is using a different spectrum band or combination of spectrum bands – and handsets are designed to work only in the bands that an individual carrier needs. If one of their devices were to be unlocked, there would be few, if any, other networks to take it to.

Today most technologists will tell you it’s a technology problem. Handsets typically support six spectrum bands or so at best – and not all carriers enable all six because to do so increases power requirements and often may require additional antennas. Typically a carrier orders a device that supports the bands in which it has deployed 3G or 4G service – perhaps one or two 3G band and one or two 4G bands — and maybe one used by an international roaming partner.

I tend to believe, though, that where there’s a will there’s a way. I’m told components capable of handling as many as 16 bands are coming and in the not-too-distant future advances in antenna technology could make it feasible for an individual device to support considerably more bands than devices do today.

The question then is whether there is a will.

From the point of view of a large national carrier, there is a powerful reason not to use devices that can work on any network: To do so would enable end users to roam onto other networks and that’s not a capability the large carriers are eager to support.

With data traffic escalating, we’re hearing more and more about an impending spectrum shortage – and if a carrier were to allow other carriers’ customers onto its network, that problem would be even bigger, at least for some carriers in some markets.

In theory, carriers don’t have the option of preventing other carriers’ customers from roaming onto their network. They’ve long had that requirement for voice and many months ago, the FCC imposed the same requirement for data.

But that issue, just like cellphone unlocking, has gotten lost behind the device interoperability issue.

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