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December 6, 2007 at 9:53 AM

AT&T: We were open first!

Is there a wireless carrier left out there that doesn’t want to be part of the open access debate?

USA Today reported today that the largest U.S. carrier said customers don’t have to sign a contract and can use any wireless phone, device and software application from any maker they want — regardless if it is from AT&T.

The message follows moves by Google, which unveiled an open mobile operating system, and after Verizon Wireless announced that it was opening up its network to third-party phones and applications later next year.

AT&T said it’s been open for a long time.

“Everything that Google has promised to bring to the wireless market a year from now AT&T is doing today. We are the most open wireless company in the industry,” said Ralph de la Vega, CEO of AT&T’s wireless business.

The story went on to say that although it has been true for quite some time that consumers could buy other devices and use them on the AT&T network, salespeople in AT&T phone stores will be proactive and make sure that consumers “know all their options.”

It is easier for AT&T and T-Mobile USA to provide a more open network than either Verizon Wireless or Sprint Nextel. AT&T and T-Mobile use the GSM standard, which has a SIM card in the phone that allows a phone to connect to the network.

A consumer can easily pop the chip out and put it into another GSM phone to receive coverage. The one limitation is that if a phone was purchased through AT&T or T-Mobile, the phones are “locked,” which prohibits them from being used on another network.

The article did not mention how AT&T will deal with locked phones, or whether they would be willing to unlock phones customers purchased from them. The iPhone, for instance, is a locked device that cannot be used on another network.

Unlocked phones are commonly available on the Internet, through eBay, or even directly from the manufacturer. The one thing consumers need to be careful about is whether that phone will work on their network of choice. Each carrier uses different frequencies and bands. Handset manufacturers make phones for those specific networks.

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