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On Call: Can Verizon make me buy a new phone?

A former Alltel customer says that Verizon is forcing her to buy a new phone? Can the carrier require her to do that?

On Call runs every two weeks, alternating between answering reader questions and discussing hot topics in the cell phone world.

Q: I was an Alltel customer, but I'm now with Verizon Wireless following the merger. I want to add a fourth line to my family plan, but Verizon informed me that my Alltel phones were not compatible and that I'd need to replace them. Replacing all four phones would cost me about $600. What can I do?
- Sarah

A: Since Alltel and Verizon both use CDMA technology, I was surprised to hear that your Alltel phones aren't compatible with Verizon's network. I checked with Verizon and got a quick response. While most Alltel customers won't have to buy new phones, there are exceptions (there always are).

It's important to note that Alltel customers forced to buy a new phone shouldn't have to do so at their own cost. You should be offered a replacement handset for free. If you want a model other than what Verizon is offering, you'll have to buy it. Hopefully, Verizon is offering a phone that is comparable to your Alltel model. Sadly, I haven't always found that to be the case. When Cingular bought the original AT&T Wireless, it offered to replace my Sony Ericsson with a very basic Nokia. I told them no thanks.

Alltel customers who will need new phones

  • Former Alltel customers with an Alltel RIM BlackBerry 8830 who have been able to roam internationally will no longer be able to roam internationally after January 1, 2010. Those customers may choose a Verizon Wireless RIM BlackBerry 8830 or a Blackberry Storm at no cost to them. Alternatively, they may keep their current Alltel BlackBerry 8830 for domestic use only.
  • Alltel customers with older handsets who use and/or pay for Mobile Web will no longer be able to access Mobile Web from their handsets starting September 1. They were offered one of two Samsung phones (exact model will depend on the customer's geographic area). If they keep their Alltel handset, they won't be able to access Mobile Web.
  • Customers who want to use Verizon's data services will need a Verizon-branded handset. Similarly, customers who want to move to a Verizon Wireless service plan, will also need a Verizon-branded device.
If none of the above scenarios apply to you, please let me know. Also, contact Verizon customer service and ask them to inform you in detail why your current handset isn't compatible. And if Verizon is not offering you a replacement handset for free, ask that it do so. After all, it wasn't your idea for the carriers to merge, so you shouldn't have to buy a new handset just to keep your service.

Q: My wife and I share a single AT&T phone. Can I buy a phone from say, Wal-Mart, and get a duplicate SIM card so both phones can share the same number? AT&T says no; they only offered a second number for an additional $30 per month. Is that true? I smell a corporate rat.
- Carl

A: Unfortunately, AT&T is correct in this case. And the carrier isn't just being difficult; it's somewhat a limitation of the technology. Every SIM card has a number called an IMSI (not an IMEI, sorry) that ties it to your account. That's why with GSM technology, your phone number and account identity travels with your SIM as you move it between phones.

When you place a call, AT&T's network identifies you by your SIM's IMSI and your phone number. If the two match up, it recognizes your calls as valid and lets it go through. Think of it like a security precaution--if the IMSI and number don't match up then you can't place the call.

Carriers allow only one IMSI to be attached to a phone number, which is why you can't assign the same number to multiple SIM cards with different IMSIs. There are hacks available that allow you to do what you're asking, but they won't be an ideal solution.

Q: I'm wondering if T-Mobile's MyFaves service can be used on an unlocked phone? I'd like to use an unlocked phone, but I would like to keep the MyFaves service as well.
- Jay

A: According to T-Mobile, you can use MyFaves on an unlocked phone, but you will miss out out on the customized MyFaves interface. In my opinion, that's a small price to pay for the freedom of an unlocked phone.