Woes of a smartphone enthusiast: Why AT&T exclusives suck

Woes of a smartphone enthusiast: Why AT&T exclusives suck

Summary: I pay full price for most of my devices, yet AT&T still won't unlock my phone if it is an exclusive. Thankfully, Verizon is doing it right with their high-end smartphones, while Sprint and T-Mobile don't really matter when it comes to unlocked devices.

Woes of a smartphone enthusiast: AT&T smartphone exclusives suck

As a smartphone and mobile gadget enthusiast, I love getting the opportunity to try out many of the latest and greatest mobile devices. In many cases, manufacturers or carriers send phones for two weeks to 30 days before I have to ship them back and look to the next device. Apple doesn't send anything to me so I have to purchase those devices to test out; and if I really enjoy other devices I will buy them to keep for an extended period of time.

One such device that I find valuable is my red Nokia Lumia 920; its image stabilization during video recording is a major asset for me. I paid full price for mine in December and earlier this week I jumped on an eBay deal for a yellow one with the intent to pass it along to my wife.

Unfortunately, the ugliness that is carrier exclusives reared its head and killed my plan for the yellow 920. As more and more people upgrade before full subsidies are granted and look to also move to MVNOs, it is important to understand a limit imposed by AT&T.

You would think paying full price gives you some control over the device too, but AT&T keeps that control if there is an exclusivity deal with the phone.

I usually pay full price for my phones since I buy so many that I rarely qualify for any upgrade eligibility to buy lower cost subsidized phones. I don't mind paying full price since I get to keep my existing plans and decide when I want to leave a carrier as no contract extension is required.

You would think paying full price gives you some control over the device too, but AT&T keeps that control if there is an exclusivity deal with the phone. I have been an AT&T customer for just about a year and asked to unlock my yellow Lumia 920 so I could let my wife use it on T-Mobile as we have all our family plan lines with T-Mobile and not with AT&T (that's just a single line I use for testing purposes). Multiple AT&T customer service agents told me I cannot unlock the phone since it is an exclusive and recommended I try again in April or May.

I completely understand (well not completely if someone wants to travel overseas with their phone) that carriers keep their phones locked when you buy them with their subsidy, but if you pay full price with no contract obligation then you should have the option to get it unlocked with an account in good standing. Thankfully, Verizon has apparently seen the light; their latest smartphones, including the Apple iPhone 5 and HTC Droid DNA, come SIM unlocked right out of the box. You can use them on T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon, or with a growing list of MVNOs --  as well as around the world -- without even having to call up the carrier for assistance.

In the past it only made sense to unlock a device for international travel, but with T-Mobile's higher speed data starting to work on the same frequencies as AT&T and MVNOs offering compelling no-contract options, there is value and flexibility in having an unlocked device. Sprint and T-Mobile have special frequency bands on their devices that generally only work with their service so there is little need to get their phones unlocked. T-Mobile is moving to the 1900 MHz frequency, so there will be more reason to look for unlocked devices in the future.

I understand most phones sold outside the US are already unlocked, but unfortunately AT&T appears to have a problem with cell phone unlocking.

Here are my suggestions for AT&T:

  • Be like Verizon and provide SIM unlocked phones out of the box (best option for the consumer)
  • Provide SIM unlocked phones for those who pay full price (seems to be the most common sense approach)
  • Let customers who paid full price or who are not under contract, SIM unlock their phones for a small fee (I would pay $25 to $50 to get this Lumia 920 unlocked)

AT&T does provide SIM unlock codes for customers in good standing when a device is beyond its exclusive period; I have my Nokia Lumia 900 unlocked and running on T-Mobile right now. However, these exclusive deals are completely locked down even when sold at full price.

In today's world where every carrier has outstanding smartphones, I highly doubt people are switching to a carrier for one specific exclusive phone and it seems that these exclusive deals generate more bad feelings than positive outcomes for the carrier. Mark Spoonauer, Laptop Magazine, posted his 5 Reasons Why Nokia's Lumia 920 AT&T Exclusive is Dumb and I completely agree.

My wife now has to use a phone with a poor camera (what was Nokia thinking on the Lumia 900 anyway?) while I wait for the stupid AT&T exclusive to end on the Lumia 920. I am seriously considering dropping AT&T as soon as I can get these Lumia 920s unlocked. I can then support Verizon with my full price purchases since they sell fully unlocked devices with no hassle.

Related ZDNet coverage

Topics: Mobility, Nokia, AT&T, Verizon, Windows Phone

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • All exclusives suck

    I shouldn't be forced to switch carriers just to buy a phone, and I shouldn't have to give up features that a phone can have just to stay with a certain carrier.
  • Unlocked Price


    Did you pay the full unlocked price of ~$700 or the out of contract price of $450? I realize the distinction is ridiculous but it does exist. If you paid the $450, then you can sort of understand their position. They gave you a $700 phone for $450, allowed you to choose whatever data/voice plan you want, with the understanding that you would use it on their network. I know this is not typical, but it seems to be the motivation behind their actions/pricing model
  • Wouldn't it be easier ...

    To buy a SIM card only and use it with phones bought in electronic stores instead at the carrier ?
    • sim unlocking

      Those services are illegal as of tomorrow.
      Some Internet Dude
  • Only in the USA

    Free market in Nor America is not as free as China, where unsubsidized phones are everywhere, providing choice and compatibility. The FCC controlled spectrum creates these little monopolies and inefficient use of spectrum (WiMax?!.!), slowing down LTE infrastructure build and creating situations where Carriers market and support handsets. If we are going to regulate, we should regulate all the way with TwO carriers, data and voice plan caps and freedom of choice w/ subsidies and universally functional handsets. As it stands, Carrier-backed phones limit choice and holds manufacturers hostage to the likes of EVo and Droid...farces of phone brands that mask the identity of the true manufacturer.
  • Seriously?

    Use a SIM unlocking service! Those do exist and they will unlock the phone for you.
    • Not for exclusives!

      I researched this, of course, and not even the SIM unlocking services are able to unlock US carrier exclusives. I read many stories of people paying to have their Lumia 920 unlocked and all that happened is that they had their money stolen without delivery of a valid SIM unlock code.

      I listed this as a possible option for AT&T since I would not mind paying a few bucks to have the phone unlocked so I can use it how I wish to use it.
      palmsolo (aka Matthew Miller)
      • You would be wrong.

        Certain Lumia 920 phones from early batches have actually been unlocked and cellunlocker claims they will refund money if they cannot do it.

        Basically, if you have one of these 44/2012 phones it should work and if you don't then, no loss to you.
      • Oh and

        All of them can be unlocked if you flash it to the European firmware but the LTE goes bye bye. No big loss for T-Mobile though.
  • They earned my business, if no exclusive I would still be on the big V

    I dropped the big V for att and a 920.

    No regerets, I feared loss of coverage, but so far very good.
  • Don't be so naive!

    Few things are leading to confusion in this article.

    1. Verizon is CDMA (also the Sprint is) carrier and AT&T and T-Mobile are GSM carriers. CDMA phones won't work on GSM networks and vice versa. According to Verizon CDMA portion can be unlocked no more than 10 times per user request during your contract period and, probably, won't be unlocked after your contract is up.

    2. Some latest Verizon’s smartphones (including, for example, iPhone 5) came with dual SDMA-GSM radios and because Verizon uses LTE spectra for these phones, FCC and not Verizon requires GSM SIM card being unlocked on these phones. So, it is, definitely, not the Verizon’s "smart" move but FCC mandate. If Verizon can withstand FCC regulation it would continue to do so and keep their phones locked until the end of the contract. (But it can't!)

    3. AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile operate different band for their "LTE" (HSPA +) networks. If you bring unlocked phone from one carrier to another watch it out, the data speed of this phone will be different and slower than in the original network.

    Well, T-Mobile is working now to expand their so-called 4G spectrum and announced that they will end soon their contracts and subsidized phones. You will pay less for different plans and can bring any GSM unlocked phone. For me this is a god thing! So far, T-Mobile is the only one who announced that. We need to see if other carriers will follow T-Mobile to stay competitive.
  • Yes, in that aspect AT&T sucks

    I can unlock iPhone 5, and Samsung Note 2, but not 920 because it is exclusive to AT&T. I wanted this because I wanted to send it to India. Anyway now they are selling 920 in India also no worries, but this really sucks and AT&T is very lazy to unlock devices and outside SIM unlock services for exclusive phones wont work.
    Ram U
  • ...But there is a way to get your way :)

    I bought a NL900 in May, 2012 by paying the retail price. I was travelling abroad in July, called at&t tech support around end of June abt unlocking it. at first they said due to exclusivity, I had to wait till October 2012. Even the manager I demanded, repeated the same thing. A week before travelling I called to unlock the Samsung Focus I had switched from, to my surprise, the new Tech said she will escalate the NL900 issue for me, will take abt a week, took my email and voila! a week later I received the NL900 unlock code :) I bet keep pestering them! Attached is the copy of the email I received

    Subsidy Device Unlock Request‏


    okcqsubun@att.com (okcqsubun@att.com)

    Add to contacts

    High priority


    To: *****@hotmail.com

    Picture of okcqsubun@att.com



    EMAIL: *******@hotmail.com
    CASE: CM20120707_44345508
    MOBILE: 509-555-****
    MODEL: 900 Lumia
    IMEI: 359746042062641
    UNLOCK CODE: 49839040

    •The customer only has five (5) tries to unlock the phone.
    •If this process is unsuccessful five times in a row, the phone will be permanently locked to the AT&T network.
    Chris Omolo
  • It Sucks To Be A Smartphone Enthusiast In The US

    The US is the least open, least competitive mobile-phone market in the world. Every other country mandated GSM as a common, open standard to prevent vendor lock-in, while the US regulatory authorities sat on their hands and "let the market decide". The result is a balkanized hodge-podge of incompatible walled gardens.
  • More on Verizon and their "openness"

    Verizon devices cannot be locked if they operate on the 700MHz frequencies that V got in the last big auction. Due to influence by Google it was written into the grant for those frequencies that devices designed to work on them had to not be carrier restricted.

    And as best I recall V did release a few early 4G devices that were locked and got their fingers slapped over it.

    Anyway, V's unlocked "current" devices are due to legal issues, not by the desired policies of the big V.

    You should really amend your post as most people finding it in a search will not read these comments.
  • AT&T does not service their outages, we need a penalty

    I think it's time customers to have influence on whether frequencies remain available to carriers. I think if we could start the discussion and get some lawmakers interested in forcing frequency owners to adequately use their frequency allocations. I think that all of them have lots of room for improvement. I know for a fact based on some of the techs that I've met, that they have insufficient training and in some cases are inept at managing the equipment they are trusted with. That's the issue that the carriers need to address first. But, it needs to be "valuable" for them to make those investments in their work forces.
  • Unlock nokia lumia 920 at&t

    I am Danialcrook. I was just wondering how to unlock nokia lumia 920 at&t, and i find safeunlockcode.com for this, this is great information, what you people are doing for it??
  • Factory Unlocked Smartphones- Definitely the Future.

    This is a fantastic candid article written by a paying customer and that's why I think the message rings so clearly. It is no secret that the US smartphones industry dominates through monopolization, as is typical in the history of US Big Business. Smartphones are no exception. However, because the nature of technology is so elusive and with each new advancement technology is empowering the individual, Smartphones along with the internet and WiFi looms to level the score.

    What I'm referring to is WiFi calling Apps. With these, as long as you have a WiFi signal and a Smartphone, you don't even need a SIM card inserted into your Smartphone to place a call, whether your smartphone is Locked or Unlocked. There are a few WiFi calling apps on the market, all with their own angle. I know the market very well and recommend "FellaTalk WiFi Mobile Calling App" created by the guys over at www.tellafella.com. These Fellas also have a huge variety of Factory Unlocked Smartphones on their website at the very best market prices guaranteed... Give em a try.

    Stay in Touch my Friends,