"all your iphone are belong to us" -at&t

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since i made the decision to go to taiwan, one of the things i've been trying to figure out is how to handle having/using a cell while there.

in the rest of the world, most people buy a pre-paid sim card when they get to a country, then use that sim card in their phone to make local calls while they are there. in the u.s., some phones don't even use sim cards (phones using cdma...a protocol almost no one in the rest of the world uses), so they're for the most part not usable outside the u.s. at&t and t-mobile use sim cards (gsm networks, which is what most of the rest of the world uses), so they have the possibility of being used in other countries. (there are difference even then, so you can't always be sure.)

but (there's always one of those, eh?) almost all u.s. phones are "locked" (even cdma ones) so they can only use sim cards for the cell provider they were sold to be used on. why? because u.s. cell companies offer you a phone at a discounted rate, which is locked to them so you can't use it elsewhere. this gives them a good chance to be able to recoup the loss they took on selling you the phone cheap (or in some cases, giving it to you for free). that's why the cell company locks you into a multi-year contract -- they're using your monthly rates to make up for the cell phone you got cheap from them. (more or less.) in most of the rest of the world, you pay full price for a phone, then you use a sim card for whatever provider you choose to use.

in the u.s., if certain conditions are met you can request your phone be unlocked. (like if you're out of contract on the phone, or if you're leaving the country.) i was hoping to be able to do that with my current phone, which is an iphone. (at&t has an exclusive contract on iphones in the u.s.) i'm not quite out of my 2-year contract, which is sometimes a reason for a carrier not to unlock your phone.

but from my googling, it appears at&t will never under any circumstances ever unlock an iphone. bought one unsubsidized for full price? doesn't matter. met your contract obligation? doesn't matter. unless you illegally unlock the iphone, you will never be able to use it on any other carrier (in the u.s. or not).

so yesterday after work i went over to the at&t store on us-59 near wilcrest. i talked with a guy there about options for the iphone, and said i wanted to get my razr unlocked. he claimed, in no uncertain terms, that at&t has never unlocked phones. i said i read it online, he said i must have misread/misinterpreted. he said he knew of one independent place in houston that could do it. (which is silly, as lots of places unlock phones, including online places remotely.) i told him i'd talked to people who said they'd gotten at&t to do it, he said i must have misunderstood them...because at&t does not and never has unlocked phones. i was kind of annoyed by him, but i didn't have the facts in front of me so i lost some confidence in my position. so i got info about iphone options and left.

i went home and went on at&t's website. from their faqs:

Question: What is the unlock code for my phone? Answer: Note: If your phone is an iPhone, the following information does not apply. Please see the topic: What is the unlock code for my iPhone? To control theft of devices and to protect customer security, AT&T only releases unlock codes to customers under certain instances. The unlock code is unique for each device as determined by the manufacturer. If you would like your phone to be unlocked, please contact AT&T at 1-800-331-0500.
Question: What is the unlock code for my iPhone? Answer: iPhone cannot be unlocked, even if you are out of contract. If you are traveling internationally, iPhone is a quad-band phone and will work in many countries across the globe. Stay connected while traveling to over 215 countries, plus get discounted rates in over 80 of those countries when you sign up for AT&T World Traveler

regarding this iphone "answer" -- as far as going to other countries -- "world traveler" gets you discounted minute rates. it costs $6/mo, but the discounted rates aren't all that impressive, really. (it varies from country to country.) and that doesn't include data, of course. you can buy that in set mb bundles, which is not very cheap. (but cheaper than international data roaming.)

so i called the phone number and talked to a very nice at&t rep who immediately told me he could get the unlock code for me for my razr right then and there, no problem at all. he did. i also talked to him about the iphone. he said he had been told there was no way to unlock the u.s. iphone, other than hacks. i mentioned numerous other countries where people unlock their phones via itunes, so it appears to be possible. he said maybe it was a software difference, but he didn't know.

now -- regarding the iphone eternal lock -- i've read that at&t will refer you to (blame) apple, and apple will refer you to (blame) at&t. i don't know who did what. but the fact is, iphones in and of themselves have the ability to be legally unlocked. they are sold unlocked in some countries, and in numerous countries where they are sold they can be unlocked (by apple, through itunes) by request through the cell company either for free or for a charge, sometimes after a set period or your contract ends or other times at any time. but not at&t, not in the u.s.

this really kind of annoys me. especially since i had assumed once your obligations were done you could get the phone unlocked no matter what reason you did or didn't have. to me, if you buy the phone outright, or if you meet the contract obligations, you should be able to have the phone legitimately unlocked. now, i can see why at&t would want to not allow that, since a phone locked to them means it can only be used on their network and thus more money for them, but it seems wrong since you the consumer have covered the cost of the device and it is yours to keep. if apple is the one who set it up this way, i'm guessing it must have been to try and control leakage of u.s. iphones to carriers in other countries. or something. whatever the reason might be, it seems pretty lame to me.

[note: please don't harass me too badly if i didn't get exactly all the terminology or statements right about cdma, gsm, sim cards, etc. in general, what i've written is accurate based on what i've read and discussed with others.]

2 Comments

I've got a friend who used a first generation iphone with Tmobile until he wanted better service and the next gen iphone so he went to AT&T instead of waiting for the new hack. It seemed to work fine. I know another guy who works for Tmobile (their headquarters is here, yet their coverage is still crappy) who has had an iphone using Tmobile almost since the phone came out. I'l tell my friend Ryan to read this & make recommendations.

just as a point of interest, since i forgot to put it in my post: using an at&t sim, a call from taiwan is $1.99/min. if you get the "world traveler" plan (at $6/mo), then the same call is $1.29/min. so 10 minutes of talk and you've covered the plan cost for the month...but is $1.29/min a decent price compared to calls in taiwan using a local sim card? i doubt it. maybe ash can provide data.

also, if i use an at&t sim card phone in taiwan, sending a txt msg will cost me $0.50 each. sending a multimedia msg will cost me $1.30 each. receiving either will still be considered part of my normal plan i currently have. so y'all can txt me, but don't expect a response from my phone. :) i can always use the internet to use my google voice account to send txt msgs and such. and any pics will be sent through email or posts on flickr or my blog or something. i've yet to look into if i can use google voice to make cheap calls to the u.s. if i have a phone with a local taiwanese sim card in it.

kevin: i know you can use stuff like blackrain, yellowsn0w, redsn0w, etc. to jailbreak and/or unlock an iphone, but it seems wrong to me that at&t and/or apple won't allow the at&t iphones to be legitimately unlocked. (via itunes, just like it can be done in other countries.) the hacks are workarounds, and many times you have to be careful about upgrading to the next software version, etc. if you have a legally unlocked phone, you don't have to be concerned about the phone getting bricked when you mess with it, avoiding updates since it might break your hack, etc. but if you friend has any insider info, that would be pretty cool.

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