Technology

Untangling the Complexities of Wireless


Answers to two questions that have been troubling readers about the ins and outs of cell-phone service

Wireless phone service is a lot more complex that it has to be, so it's not surprising that readers are puzzled. Here's a pair of questions from folks facing cell-phone complications:

Global Service

One reader, J. J. Lasne, wants to know more about international calling. After reading your article on the Apple (AAPL) iPhone (overpriced, in my opinion), I have a question for you. My Sprint wireless mobile phone (a basic Sanyo handset) has worked in Argentina, Taiwan, and Vietnam, but I cannot get service in France. What gives?

There are two basic phone technologies used in the world today: GSM (global system for mobile telecommunications) and CDMA (code division multiple access). As far as I know, Korea is the only major country that is exclusively CDMA. Some, including the U.S., Canada, Australia, and parts of Latin America, use both. The entire European Union as well as Eastern Europe and much of Asia, however, are exclusively GSM. (Japan is a special case, being split between CDMA and a unique, homegrown standard.)

In the U.S., Sprint Nextel (S), Verizon Wireless, and Alltel (AT) use CDMA, while GSM is used by AT&T (T) and T-Mobile, a unit of Germany's Deutsche Telekom (DT). Bottom line: AT&T and T-Mobile phones work just about everywhere in the world, provided they have been provisioned for international service and the handsets operate on the required frequencies. (U.S. GSM networks run at 850MHz and 1900MHz; most of the rest of the world operates at 900MHz/1900MHz, but most current handsets are quad-band.) CDMA phones will only roam in selected countries, excluding Europe in particular.

Global Positioning

Meanwhile, E. A. Fernandez wants to know why he can't get certain global positioning system navigation features on his handset. I recently acquired a BlackBerry 8830 from Verizon Wireless after the salesman assured me that Verizon had activated the GPS application. Well, as you know, they have not. I do have recourse since consumers get a 30-day kick-the-tires period. But I am pleased with the rest of the service, and I do not want to go through the hassle [of changing phones again].

My question: Why do all other providers offer GPS in the 8830, while Verizon Wireless can't? I've heard a range of answers that do not make sense. Why don't they activate this integral part of an otherwise wonderful new device? Do they have plans to activate it in the near future?

It's definitely frustrating. The BlackBerry (RIMM) 8830 World Edition is an excellent smartphone with built-in GPS capabilities. Verizon Wireless offers a very good navigation application in VZ Navigator from Networks in Motion. But while you can get VZ Navigator on 34 different Verizon handsets, you can't get it on the 8830.

The problem is Verizon Wireless's legendary—or notorious, depending on how you look at it—process for hardware and software quality assurance. The company is well known for being extremely thorough and extremely slow in its process for qualifying products for use on its network. A Verizon Wireless spokesperson says that the company planned from the beginning to offer VZ Navigator on the 8830, but the qualification of the software wasn't finished in time, so the company decided to release the handset without it and make it available for download "very soon." So you will be able to add the VZ Navigator service to your BlackBerry as soon as Verizon releases it.

As you have discovered, it can be extraordinarily difficult to get straight answers to simple questions about all sorts of high-tech equipment, not just phones. I'm not sure whether it is deliberate obfuscation or a simple fear of saying "I don't know," but nonsensical answers are very common. Obviously, there's no fundamental reason why the 8830 can't run a navigation application since you can get Sprint Nextel's version of the 8830 with TeleNav navigation service.

Wildstrom is Technology You columnist for BusinessWeek. You can contact him at techandyou@businessweek.com.

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