News "leaked" this weekend of an unlocked Google-branded phone. On the upside, an unlocked phone means you aren't tied to any particular carrier, nor are you required to sign a contract, but on the downside, you don't get the large provider subsidy on the phone cost in exchange for the contract lock-in. I'm wondering if Google releases a really nice unlocked phone for a reasonable price, if it could mark the beginning of the end of large network domination in the U.S.
The Rest of The World Doesn't Operate this Way
If you go to Europe, you'll find network stores similar to AT&T and Verizon, but you are hardly limited to these options as you are for the most part in the US. Instead, you can walk into just about any department store and find a variety of unlocked phones available for sale without restriction. There are plenty of reasonably-priced choices and when you walk out, you can go to one of the many kiosks that sell SIM cards, plug it into the phone and you're good to go. No contract, no hassles, no problem.
We Aren't Trained this Way
In the US we are trained to go to the phone store (or consumer electronics store of choice) and pick out a phone. We find the one we want. We sign a contract and the cheaper the phone, usually the greater the commitment. For instance, Radio Shack has a displayed price for AT&T phones, but a closer look reveals that the cheapest price requires that you renew your 2-year contract *and* add on at least one $9.99 or more feature to your bill. AT&T is still trying to get you to buy extra services and who can blame them? That's how they make a living.
Why Shouldn't The US Operate in an Open Market?
Why shouldn't we operate in an open cell phone service market in the US too. Sacha Segan writes in PC Magazine that the US market is complicated by a variety of infrastructure choices:
The U.S. uses two incompatible radio standards on three different spectrum bands. It's possible to build a GSM phone that supports T-Mobile and AT&T, sure. But folks who want Sprint and Verizon will still be out in the cold, because the network-based controls on those carriers can actually lock out unapproved phones.
I wish I knew more about the network end of things, but I'm not clear that Europe and the rest of the world operate on a single infrastructure style, and they seem to manage to work around this. What's more it seems to me, that they could release a variety of phones over time to accommodate these differences. Vendors would buy time from the various networks and sell SIM Cards based on network requirements. These companies could compete on price and service.
I think we can all agree, that for the most part, people are fed up with the major providers and are looking for alternatives. Could a phone with the clout of Google behind it, that provides a way to be free of these hated entities lead the way to a full-scale change in the way we purchase cell phone coverage in the US? There are too many unknown variables at this point, including cost and features on this phone, but if this comes to pass, we could remember this as a seminal moment in time, when the cell phone business in the US changed forever.