Cell phone adventure, part 1

About six months ago, I entered the smartphone era with the purchase of my first Android phone, the Huawei U8100, from Wind Mobile. Despite a few minor billing issues, I was generally impressed with the company and their service, and I love the phone. However, I’ve been disappointed that the signal isn’t stronger in my part of Toronto. It’s weak enough that I can’t use my phone at home except for occasional SMS when I find the right spot, and internet via my WiFi. Using it as a phone at home is not possible. So I’m looking for another provider.

Part of the idea of having a cell phone is that I can finally do away with my land line. Actually, it’s a VoIP line from Vonage that I’ve had since I lived in London. I’ve been very impressed with Vonage over the years, but I just don’t need a home phone any more. I just don’t use it. I checked our voicemail today: 17 messages from Tay’s mom going back 2 months, and an entertaining one from my mom’s pocket.

Being a Wind phone, my options for carriers are a bit limited. Huawei doesn’t actually have a page for my phone, so I’m relying on tech review forums to learn its capabilities. Although many have different (often clearly wrong) information, I decided that Wind’s own page was likely authoritative. My phone supports the frequency bands AWS 1700, UMTS 2100, and quad-band GSM. The only AWS carriers in Canada so far are Wind and Mobilicity, but GSM is quite common.

The first carrier I thought of was Telus, because Tay has a Telus BlackBerry and gets service everywhere. I looked up their network, which is GSM 850/1900, so I thought I was good to go. But their website’s IMEI check said no.

Confused, I thought I could just pull the SIM card from Tay’s BlackBerry and plug it into my phone, and prove everyone wrong. Bwahahaha! But no dice. Turns out Tay’s phone is a CDMA phone, with no SIM card. Finally, I decided I would have to go into a Telus store to find out why my phone was listed as non-compatible in their database.

This led to one of the most ridiculous customer service exchanges I’ve ever been through.

First, at the store. I explained my problem to the agent at the Telus store, that I had an unlocked phone that should support their frequency band, but it wasn’t listed in their compatibility database, so was there a way to test it with a SIM card? Rather than attempt to answer the question, the agent looked up my phone’s IMEI number, entered it on the website, and proudly reported that my phone was not listed in their compatibility database. Rather than push the issue, I thanked him and left.

Later, I asked twitter about Telus phones, as I often go to twitter as a source of information. I was pleasantly surprised that @TELUSsupport saw my tweet and wrote back within a few minutes, confirming that their network uses GSM 1900/850. So, I asked, why wouldn’t my GSM-capable phone work? Support quickly responded that the phone must also be HSPA compatible, which, according to my info, it was. But when I pushed for a better explanation, Support just directed me back to the website over and over. Eventually I gave up and e-mailed their sales department, who also replied with a link to the IMEI checker. I was getting nowhere.

Finally, I took to the internet to find the answer, and it turns out that the Telus support and sales people were right, although I honestly don’t think they knew or would have been able to answer. I suppose training your front line support people to be intentionally vague about device compatibility prevents misunderstandings, but it was a little frustrating for me.

But it was also a learning experience. There is more to phone/network compatibility than just the frequency band. The Huawei U8100-9 sold by Wind supports HSPA 3G on UMTS 1700/2100 MHz bands (the 1700 band is also known as AWS), and supports quad-band GSM frequencies for EDGE 2G as a legacy fallback. Telus operates HSPA 3G over GSM 850/1900 bands, and a separate 3G system over the CDMA network, but with no 2G fallback. Telus has a big enough 3G coverage area that they don’t need to operate a 2G fallback network, as some other providers do. All this means that my phone would be completely useless on the Telus network.

In part 2, armed with better info about my phone’s capabilities, I go looking for a more robust carrier. Stay tuned!

About Greg Burrell

Greg is an accountant, cyclist and political observer living in Toronto, Canada with too many cats.
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