Thursday, July 03, 2014

In search of a truly portable cellphone

I wouldn't say I rail against all of life’s constraints, but the lack of control for customers of cellphone service in Canada has always made me crazy.
    This, then, is the story of one woman with minimal knowledge of cellphone technology on an all-consuming mission: To find an affordable phone that could be taken almost anywhere in the world with just the change of a SIM card.
    The term for this magical thing is an “unlocked world phone,” a phrase I’d never heard when the search got underway in May, but one which I’d become very familiar with in the research-filled weeks that followed. There’s nothing particularly exotic about an unlocked world phone, and in many countries they are a snap to buy. But this is Canada, and our cellphone companies work very hard to stop us from doing that.
    But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back in those halcyon days two months ago, I had no idea of any of that. I had come back from Honduras with yet another cellphone I could no longer use, and discovered that my old Canadian cellphone I’d left behind was now a defunct model and also of no use. Feeling certain that for the rest of my years I will want to travel, I got thinking about a cellphone that could travel with me and just be adapted to different countries’ phone services.
    I had to do a lot of Google searches to figure out what I was even looking for. I’d heard that some cellphones could be unlocked so you could exchange the SIM cards, freeing the phone owner to buy cards in different countries and thus have local phone service without issue. I soon discovered that I’d probably be buying an unlocked phone on-line, because all the normal channels for buying such things were mysteriously unavailable. It lent a bit of a black-market feel to the whole thing.
    Eventually, I also learned that it isn’t just the unlocking that counts, you need a “world phone” – one set up to be compatible with global protocols for second-generation cellphones (I know. Whoever expects to have to utter a sentence like that?). You need a GSM phone: Global System for Mobile Communications.
Armed with these two essential pieces of information, I found a decent-looking refurbished, unlocked world phone – a Samsung Galaxy – on the Future Shop web site.
     They don’t sell any new unlocked phones, only refurbished ones, which I found pretty strange. But by this point I was finding everything strange, so I went ahead and ordered it for $119. It came and I had to send it back because the battery wasn’t charging, but the second one seems OK. (There are many more unlocked world phone-ordering options on the web, so Future Shop is not an integral part of the plan.)
    Then came the research to figure out who I was going to buy services from. More than anything, I didn’t want a contract, because I wanted to be able to come and go from Canada without anybody slapping me with a penalty. It's not like you can ask any of the dozen cellphone companies about any of this, because they've all got an agenda: Tying you and your sparkly new phone into a contract with their network for as long as possible. 
    I first looked at pay-as-you-go, but it’s not as cheap as you think when you work it out. So then I looked at month-to-month. I also had to pay attention to which companies had protocols compatible with the phone (the GSM thing). I ended up with Koodo for $39 a month, which gives me 300 daytime minutes, free evenings and weekends, and long distance in Canada. I can cancel with 30 days’ notice, at least in theory.
    I got the SIM card at Wal-Mart last week, from two nice young Wal-Mart clerks who swore to me that they were not receiving any commission for the activation and were truly giving me good advice about Koodo not having contracts. I am surprised by my own capacity to despise the cellphone companies for their damn contracts and costly packages and general lording it over us, but I will give Koodo a try.
    I started using the phone four days ago, and it seems to be working just fine. I guess the next test will be when I go to some other country and try to buy a SIM from there that works with the phone. Helpful tip: The network compatibility number is on the phone under the battery, and you can find web sites where you search on it to learn if a specific network is available to you and whether the phone’s been stolen. (Mine wasn’t. Phew.)
    Anyway, one day soon I expect to test this whole world-phone business in some exotic land. Maybe I’ll now truly have something I can take with me for use as a local phone. I feel hopeful but doubtful at the same time, as if there’s still one or two wrinkles that I didn’t know to account for and they're going to trip me up in the end.
    But hey, nothing ventured. 


Anonymous said...

very interesting information. Thanks for sharing all you research

Ed Seedhouse said...

I got an unlocked Sony Xperia (the lowest cost one) at "The Source" last year and have a contract with Virgin that sets me back a whole $16.80 per month. I only use this for safety when I am out and about and rarely make calls, except to get a taxi. I never access the internet by the phone network, only via Wifi.

It's not all that good a phone but it does the basic job fairly well.

I have no idea what's available now, though.