Locked Down Phones and Horrible Telcos

Choosing a Phone

I was considering renewing my Three contract and getting a HTC Desire HD [1]. What I need is a phone that is good for being a ssh client on 3G networks, has a good camera, and has all the fancy Google Apps.

In the comments Lon recommended a Norwegian review of phone cameras which gave the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 a much better review than the HTC Desire HD [2] – the Xperia was the highest rating Android camera phone while the Nokia N8 was the best overall.

Also the Xperia is a lot cheaper, I can get it on a $29 monthly cap from Virgin as opposed to $44 per month from Three. So just on hardware and price the Xperia beats the Desire HD.

One of the advantages of the Xperia from Virgin being cheap is that my wife and I can use the same model of phone. This avoids having to solve two sets of phone related problems and also allows us to do things like swap batteries between the phones based on who can most conveniently charge their phone.

The Need for Root

But one problem with e Xperia is that the CyanogenMod images for rooted Android phones can’t be installed on an Xperia because the boot loader hasn’t yet been cracked [3]. I would like to run CyanogenMod so I can get wireless proxy support, and support for tunneling IP over DNS, ICMP, and OpenVPN.

The Three web site claims that they have 3G phone and net access in Bendigo, but on a recent holiday my phone said that it was “roaming” all the time and I couldn’t get net access. I ended up having to use McDonalds Wifi net access which had ports such as 22 blocked and thus forced me to use Iodine IP over DNS to get proper net access. To avoid having to talk my mother through rebooting servers in future I need to have a mobile ssh client that can use all possible protocols. I could carry my EeePC with me all the time, but sometimes it’s good to travel light.

OTOH, as I feel compelled to fiddle with all my computers it would probably give me a more reliable mobile experience if I was unable to mess with my phone.

Why Buying a Phone Outright Isn’t Viable

A $29 monthly plan is probably the cheapest plan that will do for anyone who uses a phone regularly, I have had a Three $29 plan for the last four years which allows up to $150 of calls to be made in a month and typically use about $60. So any plan which doesn’t have such a cap will have to be no more than half the price of Three on a per-minute basis to compete. If I’m going to pay $29 per month ($696 over a 24 month contract) then I can use a free phone. If I was to buy a phone then it would cost at least $500 for anything that I like and maybe a lot more.

Buying a phone independently of a contract would about double the cost of owning a phone. It’s really not a viable option.

Therefore I am compelled to buy a phone that is on offer from a Telco. Things like the Nokia N900 are nice devices but as the Telcos don’t offer them I can’t consider them.

No Discount if you Don’t get a Phone

The annoying thing is that the Telcos don’t offer a discount if you choose not to get a phone. Obviously buying the hardware costs them some money, so a $29 cap with a phone included should have a matching offer of something less than $29 if you choose not to get the phone from them. I currently have a $29 per month contract with Three, I can renew that for another two years at the same rate and get a half-decent phone for “free” or I can renew for two years on a $19 per month contract and get a low-end phone for “free” but I can’t get a price that is lower than $19 per month if I decide to keep my current phone.

If Three was to offer such a discount then I would consider buying a phone outright over the net and staying with them. But as it is they don’t provide good deals for buying a phone and give me an economic incentive to go to another provider. So I will probably use Virgin when my contract runs out in January.

Locked Phones

Many Telcos still sell locked phones on a contract. When that happens it’s really difficult to get a phone unlocked as the Telco employees usually aren’t very helpful. There are a variety of web sites claiming to generate unlock codes for phones, most seem to charge $10 or more for this service and the free ones have a very small range of phones, so getting the unlock code from the Telco seems to be the only option for a phone at the end of it’s contract period as it’s not worth enough to justify the $10 expense.

While some Telcos sell unlocked phones on plans the ones that lock their phones have a chilling effect on the industry. Most people don’t test whether their old phone can be used with a different provider they just throw it out – the phone stores conveniently provide bins for old phones that are apparently recycled for some good cause.


If you make serious use of mobile phones (EG being ready to fix errors reported by Nagios 24*7) then choosing a new phone and plan is one of the most difficult things there is to do. All the plans are quite complicated and every Telco offers a different set of phones. The Telco web sites are usually poorly done, most of them don’t have an option to search for Android phones or for phones with a certain minimum resolution – they usually don’t even state the resolution and use terms such as WQVGA which don’t even have a fixed meaning in pixels. When it comes to choosing a plan most Telcos don’t have a clear comparison of the different plans, writing your own spreadsheet comparing plan costs is a good idea.

The fact that Telcos such as Virgin and Three/Vodaphone allow free calls to other people using the same company makes it even more tricky. I have to discuss my phone plans with several relatives as there is a good incentive for everyone to use the same provider.

I think that we need government regulation on the way that phones are bundled. The market for phones that aren’t associated with Telco contracts has been destroyed by the anti-competitive behavior of the Telcos.

4 comments to Locked Down Phones and Horrible Telcos

  • Eran

    Another option you haven’t considered is taking the 29$ / month contract with a phone, sell that phone on eBay (after paying 10$ to get it unlocked) and use the money to buy the unlocked, unbranded Android phone you want.
    Most Android phones can get root using z4root (see thread on xda-developers). I do not know if the Motorola Droid 2 Global can, but that sounds like the most suitable phone for you (physical keyboard, high resolution). I’m using the Motorola Droid Pro (candy bar with a keyboard) and SSHing is quite fine (the disadvantage is it’s not sold unlocked so you’d have to get it from Verizon in the US for 400-500 USD and pay an additional 50$ to get it unlocked).

  • Tim

    The hardware is important, but so is the network … in recent years my wife and I have used Three, Vodafone, Telstra and Optus. I’m very happy with Optus: the coverage is very good. It’s miles ahead of Vodafone and Three. My rural victorian snapshot: Beechworth: Optus yes, vodafone no. Tidal River: Optus yes, vodafone: no signal until you’re half way back to Melbourne.
    Vodafone has some horrible problems. Yesterday in Eltham, my wife had full signal strength yet couldn’t place a call or send a text message; at the two AFL grand finals this year, friends with Vodafone had no connectivity two weeks in a row at the MCG. Three is even worse, and for data speeds I find that it gets very slow at peak times of the day.
    I went with Optus mainly because of TPG plans , but the quality of network coverage has been a genuine revelation.

  • Brian Keck

    I bought an n900 from crazy johns (vodafone) on the corner of bourke & swanston (melbourne) on 21 oct 2010 … $39 x 24 … get $330 of calls & 500 MB per month … root without tricks, python gtk apps quite easy to write & install … like programming a (debian) laptop … guess weaker than android in apps

  • etbe

    Jonathan McDowell wrote an informative post at the above URL about his experiences in the UK and the US. I’m surprised that the US is better than Australia in some ways!

    Eran: That might work, it’s more effort than I would like though.

    Tim: Thanks for that information, I’m now thinking of going with Virgin who use the Optus network.

    Brian: The N900 is nice, but the Android app-store and the presence of apps like the tricorder make Android phones compelling.