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Ask Maggie: On getting what you pay for

CNET's Maggie Reardon looks into whether a 4G fee is really necessary, why travelers might benefit from a BlackBerry, and whether HTC smartphones can be unlocked for the U.S.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
9 min read

You get what you pay for. At least that's what you should expect when you're asked to pay an additional $10 a month for a new smartphone that is supposed to get advanced network connectivity.

Ask Maggie

The problem is that thousands of people who are buying Sprint Nextel's new 4G smarpthones are paying $10 more a month for their data service, but many of them don't live in an area that supports Sprint's 4G network.

So what gives? I talked to some Sprint execs this week to find out the answer to this question. Also in this week's Ask Maggie I offer an explanation of why it's better to travel overseas with a BlackBerry instead of an iPhone. And find out whether any of the cool, new HTC Android-based smartphones announced earlier this week in London can be used on a U.S. 3G network.

Ask Maggie is a weekly advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you've got a question please send an e-mail to me at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header.

Is Sprint Nextel ripping me off?

Dear Maggie,

I live in New York City and I bought the HTC Evo from Sprint a few months ago. I'm really annoyed because I've been paying an additional $10 a month for 4G service, but Sprint doesn't yet offer 4G here. I know 4G is coming, but I still may not be able to get it where I live and work. So why do I have to pay $10 for a 4G service that I can't use? By the way, when I bought my phone, the salesperson specifically said the extra data charge was for the 4G service.



Dear Greg,

I hear your frustration. And believe me you are not alone. There are many HTC Evo customers out there complaining about the same thing. And as Sprint rolls out more 4G handsets, the complaints will likely get louder, because the truth of the matter is that it takes a long time to roll out a nationwide network. So there are many people out there with these cool new phones and no 4G network to use them on.

Clearwire, Sprint's partner building the 4G network using a technology called WiMax, is now in 52 markets. Clearwire has announced service in New York City, and Sprint will soon be offering the service in the Big Apple as well. So that's good news for you. But you are correct in noting that, at least initially, 4G service won't be available to everyone in NYC.

The reason is simple. Even though there are some cell sites up and running in NYC, the network isn't ubiquitous yet. I met with Sprint executives earlier this week in New York City to discuss the launch of the 4G service here. And they confirmed the coverage is spotty at the moment, but will increasingly get better as Clearwire rolls out more cell sites throughout the five boroughs.

Matt Carter, the president of Sprint's 4G division, said that the plan calls for more 4G towers and cell sites to be deployed in New York City than there are 3G cell sites and towers. So the service is coming. But in the meantime, you're right. You are paying for a service you aren't getting. I asked Iyad Tarazi, vice president of Network Development and Engineering for Sprint, why this is so.

Here is his explanation: The $10 additional data charge is not for 4G per se. The company justifies the additional charge, because Evo and other 4G phone subscribers use more data than traditional 3G smartphone users. In fact, he claims that Evo subscribers use the data network 10 to 15 times more than regular smartphone users.

He also said that the Internet experience on the Evo, even on 3G, is superior to the experience you'd get with some other 3G-based Android phone or a BlackBerry. The Evo screen is better. It has a faster processor. The operating system and the apps have been optimized for the speedier device with the bigger screen.

"Browsing the Internet on the Evo is a significant improvement over other smartphones even when you're on the 3G network," Tarazi said. "And we don't tie the charge to 4G. You have to look at the whole ecosystem. We're trying to get customers to think less about the acronyms of the networks and focus on the experience, whether it's on a 3G or 4G network."

Honestly, I'd have to say that I don't really buy this justification. It's fine for Sprint to charge customers, who use more data services more for using that data. But I think it comes off as sneaky and unfair to consumers who are being told the extra charge is for 4G service, when in fact, they are not getting 4G service.

If Sprint truly wanted to be fair to consumers, the company would charge all BlackBerry customers $10 a month less than what they charge any other smartphone customer, because BlackBerry users tend to use much less data than any other smartphone customers, including those using Android and Microsoft Windows mobile phones. Or better yet, why not go to usage-based billing. At least then, consumers who use more data would pay for it. And those who do not, wouldn't have to subsidize the cost of the network for everyone else.

But I guess that's what AT&T is doing, and we've seen the fury that has created.

Still, Sprint does offer a great deal on its services compared to its competitors. The Sprint Everything plan costs $69.99. So even with the additional $10 monthly fee, customers can get unlimited texting and data, and 450 minutes of voice for about $80 per month.

Why BlackBerry rocks for international travel

Dear Maggie,

My wife and I traveled in Europe over the summer. She had her BlackBerry, and I had my iPhone 3G. We both pre-purchased data, text, and talk plans from our local carrier so we could keep in touch with our kids back home, who were attending camp. While there were differences in the way we each used our phones (I had to use Safari to view the kids "bunk mail"), overall her BlackBerry data consumption was substantially lower than mine.

I had to keep turning roaming off to ensure that I didn't exceed my (rather tiny) 10 Mb of total data. I tracked my usage using the iPhone feature in Settings-General-Usage. When we both got our cell phone bills, she had used less than 3 megabytes of data.

Why was there such a difference in the amount of data we used? Was it simply because I had to use a browser to access some e-mail? Or is it because data is compressed differently for the two phones?



Dear Keith,

You have noticed a key differentiator between Research In Motion's BlackBerry devices and Apple's iPhone. BlackBerry phones use wireless networks more efficiently than other devices, such as the iPhone or other Google Android smartphones.

And the reason this is so is because all e-mails and data sent to and from BlackBerry devices goes through RIM's servers, it's able to compress the data and deliver it very efficiently so that it doesn't eat up a lot of bandwidth. RIM claims that that three BlackBerry phones consume about the same capacity as a single iPhone or other smartphone.

Not only does RIM compress the data so that it uses the network more efficiently, but even the way it delivers services is simply more network efficient. For example, the iPhone's visual voice mail works over the data network. So when iPhone subscribers receive a voice mail while traveling and their phone is on, that voice mail message will be charged a data rate, regardless of whether that iPhone subscriber checked his voice mail.

BlackBerry phones do not use visual voice mail, so that is not a concern on these devices.

Right now, these network efficiencies don't mean much to most U.S. wireless consumers. AT&T is the only operator to start putting usage caps on data. But for people who travel abroad, the difference between an iPhone and a BlackBerry when you get your monthly bill can be substantial.

Unlocking HTC smartphones for the U.S.

Dear Maggie,

Do you know if the new HTC Desire HD and the HTC Desire Z will work on U.S. carrier's 3G networks?

I understand the Desire Z has new version of HTC Sense that gives you the nice fast boot-up. Will the T-Mobile G2 also have the latest version of Sense?

Also, it seems that the only way to get the Android phone application icons on the various home screens to appear in landscape mode is if you have a phone with a slide-out keyboard.

For instance when you turn and hold the Desire HD in landscape mode, the icons seem to stay in portrait mode. But that's not the case with the Desire Z, at least when you open the keyboard.

Is that just a setting that can be switched or just how Android or Sense works with all phones?



Dear Austin,

These are all great questions. Let me take them one by one.

HTC introduced two new Google Android smartphones this week at an event in London, the HTC Desire HD and HTC Desire Z. Initially these phones will be available only in European and Asian markets. But the phone will be available in North America down the road. Keith Nowak, a spokesman for HTC, said that he can't say when the Desire will be available in North America, and he also wouldn't say which North American carriers would be getting the Desire.

Now to answer your first question, you could get the HTC phones unlocked overseas. But they would not work a U.S. carrier's 3G wireless network. T-Mobile USA and AT&T are GSM carriers, which means you can slip a SIM card into an unlocked phone and get service. But the phones would only offer 2.5G speeds, because the European and Asian versions of these phones do not support the radio frequencies that either AT&T or T-Mobile use for their 3G services here in the U.S.

Now for the second question, will the T-Mobile G2 get the new version of HTC Sense. No, the G2, which is expected on T-Mobile's network later this fall, will only use the standard Android 2.2 software.

HTC Sense is a special user interface designed by HTC that adds features to the stock Android operating system. It's used on some of HTC's phones, but not all of them. Unfortunately, it will not be available in the upcoming HTC G2 sold on T-Mobile USA's network. The G2 will only use the standard Android 2.2 software, Nowak said.

Some of the cool features that are available as part of the new HTC Sense, include an ability to switch more quickly among seven home screens and a graphical contacts list prominently showing people's photos. It also includes a locations application for finding nearby attractions and using footprints; the ability to apply effects to photos such as fisheye-lens distortion or an aged sepia-tone look; and a built-in e-reader application powered by Kobo's bookstore service.

The new Sense also has navigation improvements. People can cache maps on the phone, which speeds up zooming and panning operations. It offers a built-in compass. And it offers a faster boot-up time, as you mentioned in your question.

Currently, the only two phones sporting the new HTC Sense software are the Desire HD and Desire Z. But Nowak said that more phones will be added that use the new software. He couldn't pre-announce any new products nor could he say when a phone would be available that uses the software in the U.S. market, but he said it will come eventually.

"HTC Sense is our trademark experience," he said. "So even though it's not available in the U.S. yet, it's very likely it will eventually come here."

And to answer your final question: is there a setting to change the application icons so they appear in landscape mode on the home screen?

Nowak said that only keyboard phones (which use the keyboard as a definitive "yes/no" as the trigger for the change in orientation) can display the home screen menu in a landscape or portrait mode. So, using the new phones as an example, the Desire HD, which does not have a physical keyboard, will only display the home screen in portrait mode (although some applications do trigger a change using the accelerometer). The Desire Z , which has a slide-out keyboard, will display the home screen in relation to the keyboard mode . It will be landscape when open, portrait when closed. And it will switch back and forth based on the position of the keyboard.