MONTREAL - There's a mutiny quietly brewing in the cellphone world. Users are rising up to liberate their phones from the shackles of their service providers.
Hugo Vilchez is one of the rebel leaders. He unlocks customers' handsets, making them free to operate on other networks.
That's because cellphones are programmed by service providers only to work in their own networks. But an unlocked phone that works on Rogers Wireless, for instance, can easily be switched over to AT&T in the U.S.
"People are free to use their phones with any provider," said Vilchez, owner of a Citi Mobility store in Montreal.
Well, not any provider. Only phones that work in the GSM standard can be unlocked. In Canada, that's Rogers and Fido. In the U.S., it's AT&T and T-Mobile, and in Europe and Asia, just about every carrier uses GSM, which relies on a tiny card to activate a phone.
An unlocked phone can thus accept the so-called SIM card from any GSM carrier. Phones from Telus and Bell Mobility, which use a different technology, are nearly impossible to unlock.
The business of unlocking mobile phones isn't new. But as cellphones evolve into multifunction gadgets, consumers are becoming more aware of how carriers fence them in. Some disable functions that were built into the device, like Bluetooth or wireless Internet connectivity, which allows users to share photos or music without eating up their minutes. Others limit the selection of ringtones, supposedly to push users to buy new ones.
"The companies want you to pay to use their networks," says John Stan, owner of the Xpress Mobile booth in downtown Montreal.
"GSM means Global System for Mobile communications. But that's a joke. If it's locked, it's not global, it's local."
As a counterpoint to this trend, small operations have sprung up to hack phones' inner brains and remove their digital constraints. Today, a shopping mall booth can do it in a few minutes to a few hours, depending on the model.
"Business has really picked up in the last six months," Vilchez said. "A new phone comes out and we get requests."
Most clients are business travellers who don't want to pay exorbitant roaming fees in a different country, or short-term visitors to Canada who don't want to buy a new phone from a local provider.
But on occasion Vilchez gets the tech-savvy youngster who wants to use the latest European device that Canadians will only see in years, if ever.
"It's mostly the Chinese and Middle Eastern students that come to me," says Stan. "They know what the new technology is. Most locals don't have a clue."
Take Jong Park, who, by unlocking his American AT&T handset with Xpress Mobile for $30, saved about $150 that he would have paid to buy an equivalent device from a local provider.
While it's perfectly legal to unlock a cellphone, no wireless company will advertise it. The reason is simple. Locking a phone also locks a customer in.
"It keeps the revenues coming," said Kevin Restivo, a telecom analyst at the SeaBoard Group in Toronto. "It makes it more likely that you'll be a customer over the long run."
Carriers have a different explanation. Rogers says it locks phones to ensure the quality of service offered to their customers over the network.
Carriers also feel that locking users to the network is a fair trade-off, since these companies normally swallow some of the cost of a new device.