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crypto and public policy

Can You Hear Me Now? (part I)

Filed under: Policy — July 29, 2003 @ 7:29 pm

I subscribe to T-Mobile because I get to use the funky Sony Ericsson T68i which synchronizes wirelessly with my Powerbook’s address book. To most American cell phone users, it makes sense that phones are specific to a given network: Sprint PCS phones do not work with Verizon, and that’s just the way the cookie crumbles. To Europeans, it’s blasphemy: cell phones are cell phones, compatible with Orange, Bouygues, and any other operator.

It’s all about GSM, the European cell network standard that began as a 1982 effort between European governments to standardize the use of the 900Mhz (and later 1.8Ghz) spectrum to allow international roaming. 15 years of collaboration yielded a single standard, massive economies of scale, and seamless compatibility across many boundaries.

GSM phones are, without a doubt, more innovative and advanced than their non-GSM counterparts. Text messaging, photo messaging, data connectivity (GPRS), color screens, bluetooth support, all appeared on GSM phones and networks long before they did on non-GSM. GSM base stations are cheaper to build and maintain than non-GSM equivalents.

And now, the US is slowly joining the club. T-Mobile, AT&T’s new network, and Cingular are GSM based. My T68i can roam world-wide, going from carrier to carrier without ever losing my US-based identity. And if I don’t like the crazy international roaming charges from T-Mobile, I simply switch a tiny smart card (SIM) inside the phone and take on a new phone number without losing my phone, directory, and laptop connectivity.

Yet GSM technology is the result of heavy-handed regulation, not market economics. Shocking!

This is just another case of competition on a shared platform. The GSM network backbone is the cell phone railway. Competing at the basic infrastructure level is simply inefficient. Yet at the edge, on top of this infrastructure, the handhelds compete quite nicely: Ericsson, Nokia, Motorolla, Samsung, etc… They simply agree to compete, not on the lowest possible base (the laws of nature with respect to spectrum), but on a collaboratively developed base (the laws of GSM networks).

Stand on the shoulders of giants and you can see farther. Share the giant instead of hogging it , and everyone can see farther.


  1. Lisa Chau:

    No, I can’t hear you!

    As a matter of fact, I wrote this yesterday —

    Last year, my 6 month old (bought brand new), $200+ phone would not work
    outside of Manhattan. Could not get incoming calls.

    I bought a new phone after 11 months (this January), then moved out of
    the city 4 months later for graduate school.

    I am currently living on-campus in a well-to-do town (as in, I am not in the boonies/woods), but my phone is
    pseudo-roaming through an extended network. At first, the reception
    wasn’t fabulous. 4 months later, my calls are regularly dropped or I
    can’t hear anything through the static — In fact, when I called Verizon
    to complain, the rep couldn’t hear me & he had to call me back on my
    landline! Because I’m on an extended network, I can’t update software,
    block my phone number or use other basic functions. I called up Verizon
    & they would not let me out of my contract (without penalty fees) even
    though my phone is now basically useless. So, I’m stuck paying $50
    month until next January. I’ve already been paying $50/month for
    several months for shoddy service.

    They should have records of all these complaints by phone.
    I’ve also sent in postcards.

  2. Ben Adida:

    Pray for FCC-mandated number portability in November so you can actually switch service without losing your phone number…. when your contract runs out, of course.

  3. Jason Zhou:

    love GSM phones. T-mobile will actully do a SIM unlock 90 days into the contract, so i can give my phone (T68i) to my mom and let her use it in China, while I get the T610, just barely trying to keep up with model updates, use “new” model phones that are technologically at least 2 models behind the European and Asian phones .

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