Tuesday, 16 February 2010

A Chip? Unlocked?

Hello my friends, and welcome to another Tuesday.  With the recent addition of "Family Day" in Ontario I'm just coming off a three day weekend, and I used that time to do a bit of research on a topic that my Aunt Jeanette requested: Using Cellphones Abroad.

Believe me folks, this one can get a bit complicated.  I'm going to try to cram everything into one article, but if I find this starts to run long I'm going to have to save some of the info for next week.  The options available to a traveler who wants to carry a cellphone while on the move are varied, and the best option will depend greatly on not just where you're going, but where you're coming from.  I'm by no means an expert on all of this, I've was doing some reading this weekend to clear up a few concepts for myself.  With that in mind, I'm probably going to advise at several points throughout this discussion that you clarify any of these points with your cellphone provider.

Now that the disclaimer is out of the way.  Let's get to the meat of the problem.  To quote one of my Aunt's comments on an earlier post: "I've heard you need a chip and the phone needs to be unlocked?!?"

Yeah, that's about the reaction most people have to this whole cellphone concept, so I'll start with what the "chip" in question is.  What people are referring to when they say you need a "chip" is your SIM Card.  For those of technical inclination that's your Subscriber Identity Module.  You may not have ever seen it, but you all have one of these somewhere in your phone.  It's about the thickness of a credit card, is 25mm x 15mm, and has a beveled edge on one corner.  Here's a picture illustrating how you'd find it on my phone:

That's pretty much it at the bottom, except that I did some really shoddy photo editing to remove serial numbers and barcodes... this is the Internet after all.

I'll try to simplify exactly what this SIM business is all about.  If you look at the name "Subscriber Identity Module" it becomes a little more clear.  A phone is just a device, it has a speaker, and a microphone, and some buttons.  That SIM card is what makes it YOUR phone.  That's what contains information about your service provider, what your phone number is, and is often where information like your address book is stored.  The theory there is that if you drop your phone and it breaks you could get a phone of the same model, plug your SIM card into it, and all your contact information and everything will be right there.

So then, that moves us right into this whole "unlocking" concept.  Believe it or not, this isn't a universal requirement, although it's something that you're going to bump into a lot more here in North America from what I understand.  Anyone who's shopped for a cellphone has probably noticed that they'll practically give you the phone (in some cases they will!) if you sign up for a contract.  Case and point, my phone cost me $100 with a 3-year contract.  Without said contract that would have been a $650 phone.  Yikkes!  This is coming from the fact that we pay WAY too much for cellphone service in North America as compared to the civilized world outside.  The cellphone providers know this, and they're willing to take a massive loss up-front on the cost of the phone because they know that over 3-years of you paying for phone service they'll make that investment back easily.

This is where the concept of locking comes in.  Like I said, burning on the cost of the phone is an investment by the service provider, but they want to do everything in their power to ensure that they get a good return on that investment.  That means they don't want you going out, getting the best deal possible on your phone, and then switching service providers.  So they've got this nice little collusion with the phone manufacturers in the form of locking.  Basically the phone manufacturers will make a phone for a specific service provider that will only work if it has one of that provider's SIM cards in it.  So, for example, you'll notice that my phone has a Rogers SIM Card, because that's my service provider.  If I went to Telus, signed up for an account and got a SIM Card, it wouldn't work in that phone.

Now to the unlocking business.  The phone manufacturers, for whatever reason, have decided that even though they're willing to make these phones lock to a specific service provider, they want to make sure that it's not a permanent condition.  So, if you put a SIM from another provider in there you'll have the opportunity to enter in an unlock code, which will then open the phone up to use any SIM card you want. I haven't done this, but it's my understanding that as long as you know the model of your phone and what service provider it's locked to you should be able to find your unlock codes online.

This means that in theory I could unlock my phone, fly to Norway, go to their local telecom, buy a SIM card, put it in my phone, and I'd be walking around with a local phone.  My same old phone would now be operating on a Norwegian phone number, and I'd be making local calls for free, and working on whatever sort of a long-distance plan my new Norwegian service provider was offering.

Okay, I'm making the executive decision to stop there.  This post is getting fairly long, and that's going to be a lot for some people to digest.  I think I've laid the groundwork here for next week's discussion.  Now that we understand a little better how our phones work I can really start digging into the pros and cons of the various approaches for using a phone overseas.

See you next week everyone.


Jabbles said...

Isn't that what you did in Japan? Just a simple SIM card swap?
A little off topic but if you want to switch phones with someone assuming you are both with the same provider it's pretty easy, a couple guys at work did this recently. One got a new phone but thought it was "too complicated" so they simply switched cards and all worked out.

Aunt J. said...

Wow, thanks for all the investigating you did on this Col. You're fabulous and the whole concept is making more sense now. Also you're right, knowing what SIM means sure helps (unfortunately, I didn't).