Friday, May 10, 2013

Cell Phones and National Decline

I grew up dreaming of space ships, and watching the rocket launches of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo projects. All heady stuff. America was the greatest country on Earth and only the Soviets challenged us with little more than maskirovka and compliant propaganda apparats in the New York Times. Nevertheless, we knew the USA was the world's alpha male big dog. And that knowledge might have even been true then.

Now, less so. The technology coming out of Silicon Valley propelled us forward so far and so fast, a description of a typical day in my life today would seem incomprehensible to my younger self in grad school. I was a SciFi fan then and things now are more advanced than the SciFi I read then.

That inspired a little aside in my story From Greenland's Icy Mountains (in Finding Time): "This 'hollow gram' uses technology that makes time travel seem like child's play."

I intend to describe some other technology that makes time travel seem like child's play, too.

Most technology we use today is unexpected and miraculous. Yet there are surprises: cross the border into Canada and your mobile data quits working: that Google Map application on your phone just falls over. And when you get off the airplane at Heathrow in London, your mobile voice data quits working, too. The first denial of service is merely a surcharge for international data roaming. The second is technically more difficult.

Cellular telephony has been subject to technical progress over the last two decades. There used to be none. Then there was analog cellular. And more recently digital cellular. This digital cellular has been deployed at different times in different locales using different technologies. I'm a technologist and I get boggled by the details. Yet, I can grasp a few rudiments. If you're in the USA there's two technologies enabling cellular telephony: CDMA and GSM. These are acronyms standing for Code Division Multiple Access and Global System for Mobile communications, respectively.

The USA, being first, built out a system that works fine for the consumer using CDMA. The rest of the world has deployed GSM technology with some exceptions. GSM has been deployed in the US, too. So, today if your cellular provider is Verizon or Sprint, your phone will use CDMA to talk to the cell towers that pepper the landscape. And if your cellular provider is ATT or T-Mobile, your phone will use GSM.

Should you never leave the USA, these considerations are completely irrelevant. Your phone will use CDMA or GSM and "just work" with your cellular provider worrying about the details.

Meanwhile, technology has become so advanced, and high powered computer chips so magical, that many phones have hardware that'll work with either GSM or CDMA. There's no need to buy a special "International phone" at least from a hardware perspective.

If your head is spinning from all the technology changes, remember that human nature--particularly human greed--does not change.

Thus the magical capabilities of the hardware are HOBBLED by the greed of the cell phone operators. Yes, the iPhone 5 bought from ATT is designed to work on both GSM and CDMA, but they've disabled the CDMA and will never let you reenable it. Even after your contract with them expires. Same goes for Apple when you want to buy an unlocked iPhone 5 directly from them. This prevents you from ever taking an iPhone 5 and your business to either Verizon or Sprint. Unless you buy an iPhone 5 from Verizon or Sprint in which case they've disabled the GSM and will never let you either unlock the phone or enable CDMA to take your business to ATT or T-Mobile.

Half the magic of the technology is disabled by some corporate entity or another to their gain and my hurt. Despite the fact that I bought my phone with my money, they won't let me use its full capabilities.

Screw that.

I bought an unlocked Samsung Galaxy. It came with documentation written in French, but I managed to get the battery charged before I left the States. After I arrived in London, I went to an "off license" store and bought a Virgin Mobile SIM card with 10 Pounds on it.

It made a big improvement over my last trip to England. Whereas last time I'd aimlessly wander lost among the maze if twisty London or Oxford streets, this time I could get lost, fire up Google maps, and see exactly where I was and how to get where I wanted. And I new I could summon aid at all times, too.

I think I got a bargain and I intent to use this Samsung phone next time I venture beyond the borders of the USA. And lend the phone to any friends travelling internationally.

When you travel internationally, you get a chance to see how other people live. Most of the similarities between people you never notice. Trivial differences get noticed. I thought the city of London showed its age.

Solving the should-be-simple problem of getting a smartphone working overseas showed me how the rest of the world has leap-frogged the US technologically. Samsung is a Korean firm and I'll wager the phone was built in China. The only contribution of US companies to this story are speed-bumps.

Congress is considering a law to make it legal to unlock one's cell phone. The fact that it is currently illegal to do so infuriates me. This is not the America that put a man on the moon.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. I believe region-locked DVD players are virtually non-existing here in Iceland. In the early days the high-tech gadget stores would offer to unlock them for a fee. Now the player you buy in our version of Walmart is already unlocked.

    I think they tried to have some vendor lock-in with GSM phones at the turn of the century, but now they just do it with contracts: commit to two years at our service and you get the phone for free, etc.

    I haven't kept abreast of the vendor lock-in issues with the smartphones such as iPhone; there may be some.


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