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

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.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer
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.

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