News Magazine

Rich Warren | Consolidation rules the cellphone industry | Science-technology

Once, you could have any telephone, as long as it was black.

Subsequently, the original AT&T (a distant relation to the current AT&T) and GTE charged extra for colors and more fashionable designs.

Now, manufacturers beguile us with smartphones loaded with every conceivable feature. Smartphones replace nearly all nonprofessional cameras and dedicated navigation systems.

A few manufacturers teamed up with famed camera companies, such as Sony and Nokia with Ziess and OnePlus with Hasselblad.

This resembles famous audio brands appearing in automobiles. While various audio companies contribute varying degrees of expertise or certain parts to automotive sound systems, they do not manufacture the actual car stereo.

Camera companies achieve fame and success from their lens design and construction as well as manufacturing technique. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, famous camera companies don’t manufacture smartphone lenses or imaging devices. Camera companies contribute some design concepts and software to enhance the photo quality of a smartphone, but, usually, marketers couple the name with the phone.

Few of us use our phones for professional or mission-critical photos or videos.

Most people desire good shots of family (especially kids), pets and vacations. Nearly any smartphone provides photo quality worthy of these. You have to step down to a sub-$300 phone to notice inferior quality.

Strangely, the one function smartphone manufacturers rarely, if ever, advertise is the quality as a telephone. When was the last time an ad proclaimed: “Hear Aunt Martha more clearly?”

You may see occasional mention of noise-cancelling microphones or stereo speakers (the latter for music reproduction, not phone calls).

Most cellular providers offer some form of enhanced call fidelity and clarity, but you rarely see this capability mentioned in advertising or even in the specifications.

Further, if you buy an “unlocked” phone, not beholden to a single cellular provider (such as AT&T, Verizon or T-Mobile), you’ll need to consult an expert or carefully read intelligent online reviews.

You’ll need to comb the specifications for assurance the phone takes full advantage of all of your carrier’s features.

Each cellular provider licenses separate chunks and slivers of the wide cellular frequency spectrum. While the phone you choose may work with all providers, it may not be able to use all of a single provider’s spectrum.

Thus, your phone might work well with AT&T in East Central Illinois but not be able to take full advantage of AT&T’s bandwidth in Chicago or St. Louis.

The new, favorably reviewed OnePlus 9 serves as an excellent example. While it works with all carriers, the initial release models only provide 5G when used with T-Mobile.

In an online chat, a OnePlus representative would not admit this. However, the review in PC Magazine clearly noted this issue.

The lack of 5G with AT&T may not be permanent. It can be changed via an over-the-air software upgrade, but OnePlus makes no promises if, and when, this might happen.

Many readers use cellular providers, known as mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs), that buy massive blocks of airtime at a large discount from the big carriers and resell them at a smaller discount to its subscribers.

Consumer Cellular may be the most popular of these. Consumer Cellular increases confusion because it sources airtime from AT&T and T-Mobile. You can determine which carrier your phone uses by requesting a SIM card for one or the other from Consumer Cellular. Otherwise, the one Consumer chooses may be random.

Boost uses Sprint, which merged into T-Mobile. Cricket is part of AT&T. MetroPCS is part of T-Mobile. Google’s Project Fi uses WiFi where possible but otherwise uses a special SIM card to switch between three different carriers. Most other MVNOs use the Sprint/T-Mobile networks.

Consolidation rules the cellular phone industry. We’re down to three major carriers and just a handful of top phone manufacturers. Apple and Samsung rule most of the U.S. market for premium phones.

Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. Email him at [email protected]