You’re not going to see it advertised on billboards or during your favorite television program. Your local cell phone store isn’t going to tell you about it either. It’s something quite remarkable, and something that even the mighty Google couldn’t do.
Let’s get some background under our belts, shall we?
GSM is a wonderful technology. It has opened the world to mobile communications. That’s basically what the acronym stands for — Global System for Mobile Communications, originally Groupe Spécial Mobile. Using systems based on this technology, a subscriber can place their “identity module” into virtually any phone and be able to make and receive phone calls anywhere in the world. Similarly, a person can obtain a SIM from a country they’re visiting and place it into their existing phone, and again, make and receive calls anywhere in the world. As far as voice communications go, it’s really just that simple. Once we add data into the mix, things get a little more “interesting”.
Data comes in various flavors and is deployed on carrier specific radio frequencies. If your device doesn’t support a certain carrier’s frequencies, you can’t get data from them — or perhaps you can get some data, just the slower varieties. It all depends on many variables.
Next we come to locked devices
Some devices are wide-open and will work with any carrier’s SIM on any of the frequencies that the phone’s radios support. Other devices are “locked” so they only work with SIMs of a certain carrier — and there are other kinds of locks that we won’t get into here.
Google has been leading the charge with “factory unlocked” devices. They might better be called “non-locked” because they really aren’t “lockable” at all, and their default configuration is such that you can plop in any SIM, power up the phone, and away you go — just like GSM was intended to do.
Along came LTE
LTE is super-fast data (and eventually super-cool voice, too). It operates on different frequencies than other wireless data does and has some separate and distinct requirements for it to work on cellular devices. LG has an awesome phone with LTE on-board, which Google modeled their Nexus 4 after. When it was originally released, the Nexus 4 had a “work-around” that allowed subscribers to connect to LTE — if their carrier supported specific bands. Google later pushed an update to the device that closed the “LTE loophole” that they’d never intended to be there in the first place.
Why? Google went on the record stating that obtaining access to various carrier’s LTE networks required them to jump through too many hoops — it wasn’t realistic to enable LTE in the Nexus 4. Besides, HSPA+ is capable of up to 42Mbps, so as long as carrier’s support those kinds of speeds on the back-haul, there’s really no reason for LTE.
Regardless, Google couldn’t get LTE into their flagship phone, and they took a beating for it.
HTC: Quietly Brilliant
The brand new HTC One is out, and you may have already rushed out to your favorite carrier to buy it. If you haven’t picked yours up yet, you might be glad that you waited. It seems that HTC has quietly put LTE into their own “unlocked, flagship phone”, and it works on both T-Mobile’s and AT&T’s LTE networks — though coverage on the former is admittedly very small at present.
It’s brilliant. HTC is selling an unlocked phone, just like Google is, but it works with not only GSM voice and HSPA+ data, but with the latest and greatest LTE from two of the States’ most prominent carriers — just pop in your SIM, turn it on, and you’re set!
You can’t get the “HTC Super One” from your carrier, however. If you want true freedom, you’re going to have to buy it straight from HTC. The good news is that it’s priced at or below AT&T’s list price for their “handicapped” version of the phone. The bad news is that it’s back-ordered until the end of May.
Good things come to those who wait.