Mobile Agonistes

(New York) LA Times columnist David Lazarus writes in his column today:

All [wireless] phones should work on all compatible networks — particularly in light of the fact that all wireless companies are building state-of-the-art networks to accommodate increasingly snazzy smart phones.

Figure it like this: If you buy a TV at Best Buy, it’ll work with any cable or satellite provider you pick, anywhere in the country. Mobile phones should work the exact same way.

Well now.

Lazarus is a bright guy and ought to know the obvious problems with this ridiculous comment. First, the four main U.S. carriers (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile) use incompatible technologies. Second, these technologies operate on different frequencies.

In technical terms, unless your carrier’s cell tower technology and emitting frequencies match the radio in your mobile phone, your call won’t go through. That’s why European 3G handsets have difficulty with the U.S. 3G standard. Even though the technology is basically the same, Europe’s standard for 3G is 2100 MHz, while AT&T operates 3G at 850 and 1900 MHz.

That means that while Lazarus’ dream of a mobile phones that are technology- and frequency-agnostic can be achieved, it won’t be cheap. Nor does he acknowledge that there is the cost. Maybe an additional $60 per handset? Maybe $80.

That said, the market is converging, as the 4G/LTE standard should bring greater technological harmony to the mobile industry. But don’t hold your breath, as it won’t be truly mass-market until 2011.