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Bringing your own smartphone to Verizon: What you need to know

CNET's Marguerite Reardon says the wireless industry is offering more choices for how you buy devices and gives her advice on figuring out what works best for you.

Verizon is making big changes to how customers buy devices for its network. And that could mean more opportunities and choices for how consumers acquire smartphones in the future.

Earlier this month, Verizon eliminated contracts and the subsidies for smartphones that went with those contracts. And this week, the company said it will make it easier for customers to bring unlocked devices -- a term used to describe devices that do not have software blocking them from use on other carriers -- to the Verizon network. These changes could eventually lead to more choices at a wider range of price points for consumers. But figuring out which devices work on which wireless networks isn't always easy.

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I explain how the industry is changing and give some advice on what specifications customers should be looking for.

Dear Maggie,

I currently have Verizon Wireless service with a non-smartphone. My two-year contract has long since expired. I am considering a Samsung Galaxy or an Apple iPhone. I'm willing to pay full price for it, but I'd like to get a good deal if I could. I'm thinking of buying the phone on the open market instead of from Verizon. Maybe I could get a better deal that way? I would also like the phone that I buy to be able to be used on other carriers, should I have a falling out with Verizon.

Is this possible to do? When shopping for the phone, how can I tell from the phone's specs what carriers it will work with?

Thank you,

Jim

Dear Jim,

Shopping around for an unlocked smartphone that can be used on multiple wireless operators' networks is a smart idea. For one, it allows you to get the best price you can find on a device. And it also gives you the option to switch to another operator if you're not satisfied with your service.

Verizon has eliminated contracts and the subsidies for smartphones that went with those contracts. Verizon Wireless

But popular phones like a new Apple iPhone 6 or Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+ likely won't be any cheaper unlocked than they would be from your carrier. Still, there are plenty of budget-friendly smartphones on the market, such as new devices from Motorola and from a slew of Chinese manufacturers that will offer you some big savings. These phones come unlocked out of the box, and you can get great deals on them over more expensive models, like the iPhone or Galaxy smartphones.

Verizon has traditionally made it difficult to use an unlocked phone bought from a company other than Verizon. This is in stark contrast to operators like AT&T and T-Mobile, which have made it easy to bring unlocked devices to their networks for years. But things are changing at Verizon, according to Albert Aydin, a spokesman for Verizon. The company is making an effort to make it much easier to use some unlocked phones, such as the iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, and Nexus 6 on its network, even if it's a version of the device that wasn't made specifically for Verizon. Customers can visit Verizon's website and check the ID, such as the IMEI number, on their device to see if it will work unlocked on the carrier's network.

The company's move to make it easier to use non-Verizon devices on its network comes as the result of a couple of important trends in the wireless industry. First, demand for unlocked devices is growing. And after years of pressuring lawmakers to do something to force operators to remove the software preventing them from being used on competitors' networks, wireless operators struck an agreement with the Federal Communications Commission earlier this year to abide by a code of conduct for unlocking devices. As part of this code, carriers have promised to allow customers to unlock devices that they've already purchased in full.

The other major trend is that the wireless industry is moving away from contract service plans that offer subscribers a low-cost device in exchange for signing a two-year contract. Now, operators are starting to require subscribers to pay for new devices in full or in monthly installments with no contract or obligation to continue service. T-Mobile got rid of its contract plans more than two years ago. Earlier this month, Verizon announced the same move. AT&T and Sprint give customers the option to forgo contracts, but they have not eliminated them yet.

Under the old contract plans, customers would typically pay $200 for a new smartphone. But the device costs much more than that, usually at least three times more than the subsidized price. Who paid the balance? The carrier, which then figured the cost of this subsidy into the monthly service charge. But customers never actually knew how much of their monthly bill went to paying for their service and how much went to paying off their phone. What's more, once a contract ended, customers still paid the same amount each month -- even long after the device the carrier had subsidized was paid off.

That's all changing, and it's good news for consumers, especially savvy shoppers like yourself. Now, the cost of your service will be separate from the cost of your device. You can still buy a new phone from your carrier, but you'll either pay full price for it upfront or you'll finance it.

The other option, as you have suggested, is that you can bring your own device. This means you can use a phone that you already own, buy a used or refurbished smartphone, or shop around for a less expensive device from a lesser-known manufacturer.

us-lte-frequency-bands.png
This chart shows the LTE frequency bands that the four major US carriers support. Marguerite Reardon/CNET

Both of these trends are likely why Verizon is changing its policy and finally embracing unlocked phones on its network. But there is a catch. Not every device will work on every carrier's network. This is especially true for Verizon and Sprint, which have based their traditional voice and data networks on technologies that are not deployed globally. To make certain the smartphone you buy will work with your carrier, you must look at the device specifications to ensure it supports the radio frequencies and network technology that is compatible with your carrier.

Checking specs

Network technology

US wireless operators don't use the same fundamental wireless technology to deliver voice services. For instance, Verizon and Sprint rely on a network technology known as CDMA for their voice services. AT&T and T-Mobile use a different technology for voice known as GSM. This is a problem because devices made for AT&T and T-Mobile or European markets, which also use GSM, won't include radio technology for CDMA. And that means it won't allow you to make calls or get text messages on Verizon's or Sprint's network.

LTE radio frequencies

The wireless world is quickly moving to the next generation of network technology known as 4G LTE. Right now LTE is the technology used to provide broadband-like Internet speeds to wireless customers. Even though all major wireless carriers throughout the world, including the four major carriers in the US, are using the same 4G technology to deliver high-speed Internet access to smartphones, they don't all use the same radio frequencies. This means that the device you choose needs to include radios that can tune into the frequencies that your carrier is using for its 4G LTE network. If it doesn't have radios that are compatible with its LTE frequencies, you may not get data service at all or you will get service that is substantially slower than is advertised for a 4G LTE Network.

What to look for

The incompatibility issue is particularly hard for Verizon customers since you will need a device that supports CDMA for voice. As for 4G compatibility, you will need to make sure the phone you purchase has radios that can tune into the frequencies that Verizon uses for LTE.

When it comes to LTE, it's not enough to just look for the frequency, since some carriers use different slivers of the same frequency for their LTE networks. So it's more helpful to look at the specific LTE frequency "band class" that is supported. Band classes are assigned by a wireless standards organization to ensure manufacturers are using the same specifications when developing components for devices. This means that matching LTE frequency band classes is the best way to know if a device you're buying is compatible with the network you use.

For Verizon, you need to make sure the phone you are purchasing supports any of these three LTE band classes: LTE band 13 (700 MHz c), band 4 (1700 MHz f) or band 2 (1900 MHz). Just for reference, AT&T and T-Mobile each support LTE bands 2 and 4. Sprint supports one band class that is common to Verizon: band 2 (1900 MHz).

One thing to note here is that wireless operators use a mix of radio frequencies to build their networks. And depending on which markets they own specific frequency licenses and how they are building their networks, they may not use the same frequency bands ubiquitously across their network. What this means for consumers is that if all the bands don't match up exactly, which they do not for any of the major wireless carriers, there is a chance that a device made specifically for one carrier may not work optimally on another carrier.

This issue may soon go away as device makers include more frequency bands in all the devices they make. This has already begun happening with devices from Apple, Samsung and Motorola, which are building devices that can be used across multiple carriers. But for now, it's something to consider when shopping for a new unlocked phone. It's still important to read the specs to make sure the bands match up to the carrier.

What should you do?

Getting an unlocked phone that wasn't specifically made to work with Verizon on its network is tricky. The CDMA/voice issue pretty much ensures you need a device that's made for Verizon. There are a few exceptions. And some of those are the phones that Verizon has already certified to be used on its network. The iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, as well as the Nexus 6 can be purchased unlocked and used on Verizon. Unfortunately, many of the low-cost devices from China won't work on Verizon, not just because they aren't "certified" by Verizon, but because the technology is not compatible.

The good news is that all of Verizon's 4G LTE phones come unlocked out of the box. And because the rest of the world uses GSM for voice rather than CDMA, new smartphones made for Verizon already include CDMA and GSM radios, which means the phone can be taken to a carrier like AT&T or T-Mobile in the US as well as to other GSM operators overseas and it will work.

As for LTE compatibility, as I explained above, AT&T and T-Mobile use some of the same radio frequency bands for LTE that Verizon uses, so smartphones made for Verizon's 4G network, should still operate on either AT&T's or T-Mobile's 4G network. The LTE issue becomes a bit trickier in Europe since wireless carriers there support different frequency band classes than operators in the U.S.

The best way to know for certain is to compare the specs. The Verizon phone must be GSM compatible and support the same LTE frequency bands that either AT&T or T-Mobile support. T-Mobile provides a tool on its website that allows you to type in the serial number of your device to double check.

The bottom line

If you plan to stick with Verizon as your service provider, I suggest just getting a smartphone made for Verizon. This doesn't mean you have to purchase it from Verizon. You can still get a used or refurbished phone that was made for Verizon. You will be able to save some money if you do that. The reason I suggest buying a Verizon 4G LTE smartphone is because it will work optimally while you are a Verizon customer. And if you do decide to leave Verizon, it will most likely work on either AT&T or T-Mobile. It's a win-win for you.

Good luck!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.