The fact that Apple now offers an “unlocked” version of the iPhone 3GS in Canada, and will soon release an unlocked iPhone 4, hasn’t received much attention.
That’s too bad, because it’s a development that’s very important to us as consumers.
The unlocked iPhone offers Canadians freedom from the artificial restrictions that have historically been imposed on us by our large mobile telecommunications carriers.
Unfortunately, however, it’s not going to save us any money – yet.
Any phone you’ve bought to date with a mobile phone carrier in Canada has been “locked” to that company’s network.
That means that, even if you wanted to, you couldn’t use it on any other company’s network in the world.
It’s a great ploy by Bell, Rogers, Telus and their ilk to bind you to them for an extended period of time.
A locked phone is also a technical assurance for the carriers that you’ll honour that multi-year contract you just signed (they clearly don’t believe they could otherwise trust you).
However, even after you’ve fulfilled that contractual obligation, the carriers don’t release your phone from their interminable grasp.
The lock on your phone is forever. And ever. And ever.
So at the end of a contract, if you love your phone and want to keep it, you have to sign a new contract with the same carrier.
If you want to switch to a new carrier, you have to buy a new phone that’s locked to that carrier’s network.
It’s the never ending cycle of telecommunications servitude that we serf consumers pay to our carrier overlords.
The funny thing is, phones don’t have to be locked. Carriers choose to lock their phones specifically to shackle you and limit your freedom of choice as a consumer.
Imagine, then, if you owned an unlocked phone.
You wouldn’t have to forevermore depend on one carrier for service. You could buy service from whatever carrier you please, wherever you happen to find yourself, in Canada or in any other part of the world.
It also gives you leverage to negotiate for more features or lower costs.
With an unlocked device you can literally move your mobile phone number from one carrier to another at the drop of a hat. (Only our 867 area code is exempt from such convenience, it’s worth noting.)
If a large enough number of customers carried that flexibility in their pockets, carriers might start actually competing for our mobile business, rather than simply setting traps to snare us into long term contracts.
But breaking the artificial bonds that carriers impose on us is not the only value in an unlocked device.
After all, a lot of us actually like the companies we subscribe to for mobile phone service. (Yes, after years of loathing, I’ve actually learned to sorta-kinda like Bell.)
Many of us travel frequently, and it would be convenient and cost-effective to maintain multiple numbers in the various regions we visit.
For example, if you travel to Europe a lot, you could buy a SIM card with a local number there and slip it into an unlocked iPhone at will. Then you could enjoy lower rates and invite people to call you locally without incurring long distance charges.
That’s simply not possible with a locked device.
But that solution doesn’t just apply to international travellers.
If you split your time between two cities in Canada, you could buy separate SIM cards for each, from two different carriers, and swap them in and out of your phone to suit your purpose.
(Case in point: a Rogers-locked iPhone in Whitehorse is useless.)
However, despite the fact you’ve paid handsomely for it and fully own it, an unlocked phone won’t save you any money on service fees in Canada.
You’ve probably noticed that when you sign a multi-year contract with a carrier, you get a new phone at a reasonably low cost.
That’s because the carriers hide the balance of the phone’s value in the monthly fees you pay for the duration of the contract. That’s why they lock the phones – to make sure they get their money out of you (plus interest, of course).
With that in mind, if you walk up to a carrier with an unlocked iPhone that you’d already paid $600 to $800 for, you’d expect a bit of a break on the cost of monthly services.
The fee structures at Canadian carriers are rigged for contracts and locked phones. So you’ll still be paying the same amount of money every month as the carrier’s subsidized customers.
Such is the cost of freedom, I suppose.
The only thing that might change that is if a critical mass of mobile customers in Canada begin to use unlocked devices. Then we could demand pricing that excludes the subsidized portion that contract customers pay.
Of course, for that to happen we’ll need more phones than just the iPhone to become available unlocked.
Interested in helping me start this revolution?
When you need a new mobile phone, buy an unlocked iPhone (or any other unlocked phone you might come across).
You can only get unlocked iPhones direct from Apple on their website or in one of their retail stores.
Even if we don’t escape this state of serfdom in the short term, perhaps at least our children will one day taste telecommunications freedom in Canada.
Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, July 23, 2010.