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AT&T reopens its open network

Don't be confused: Despite a report Thursday, AT&T has not changed its policies; its cell networks have always been open to any phone using GSM technology.

What's more open than open? Wide-open!

USA Today ran a story Thursday morning with the headline "AT&T flings cellphone network wide open." The story quoted AT&T Mobility President Ralph de la Vega as saying: "You can use any handset on our network you want. We don't prohibit it, or even police it."

Sounds like a dramatic change in policy, right? Perhaps in response to recent moves from Verizon and Google to promote open networks ahead of the bidding on the 700MHz spectrum auction? Well, actually, no. It's how AT&T's network has always worked.

AT&T falls into the GSM school of thought in the mobile phone business. It's the predominant network technology, used by more than 80 percent of the phones in the world. You can argue the technical merits of download speeds and range of GSM and its competitor, Qualcomm's CDMA, all you want, but there's one nice thing about GSM. It stores your phone number and the related data on something called a subscriber identity module (SIM), so you can take the SIM card and switch it into another phone, or take your phone and switch to a different network with a new SIM card.

Anyone who wants to sell a GSM phone is required to use the SIM card technology. As long as it's a GSM-compatible phone, you can bring a phone you bought through T-Mobile or other carriers to AT&T's network. You can buy GSM phones on eBay or Craigslist and get them hooked up on AT&T's network. You can take your AT&T GSM phone to London and get service.

AT&T may not actively promote that, but it's hardly new. What is new is the desire of wireless carriers to be seen as the openest (yes, I know that's not exactly a word) player on the block. That may be because of the push by the FCC to require carriers on the 700MHz spectrum to provide open access to their networks. Or it might be to get in on the love being shown Verizon and Google for their embrace of "openness."

However, it's just an exercise in marketing and public relations, and not a substantial shift in policy. And really, any claim by AT&T that "we are the most open wireless company in the industry," as de la Vega said, is kind of silly considering that you're not authorized to use an iPhone on any other network in the U.S., even if you pay to terminate your two-year contract.