While "Unlocked" Smartphones Are Near Meaningless in the U.S.

Those of us in the U.S. look on article titles like this with a large amount of envy.

Apple to sell iPhone 4 unlocked in Canada (CBC News)

Although there is a lot of discussion about the desire for popular smartphones to be sold unlocked in the U.S., this is actually mostly meaningly except for its relation to the ability to also buy popular smartphones without a contract. This is because the only two U.S. carriers where the concept of unlocked is meaningful is AT&T and T-Mobile. You could take a SIM card from either carrier, place it in an unlocked phone and make a voice call. The problem is that what most people really want is to be able to choose between AT&T and T-Mobile’s 3G service. Unfortunatley, the use completely different frequencies for their 3G service. AT&T uses 850 and 1900 MHz while T-Mobile USA uses 1700 and 2100 MHz.

We saw this first hand in the U.S. when the first Nexus One model was released unlocked but tuned to T-Mobile’s 3G network. Placing the handset on the AT&T network would degrade data down to slow EDGE speeds. Similarly, the Dell Streak is tuned to AT&T’s 3G. So, placing a T-Mobile SIM in an unlocked Dell Streak limits the user to slow EDGE speeds.

What we really want are unlocked smartphones with radios that work at all four 3G frequencies used by AT&T and T-Mobile. And, so far, we haven’t seen this happen.