As you may have noticed, I am a pretty big fan of buying smartphones outright and using them without cellular contracts, one of the reasons being that you can easily change carriers. Unfortunately, in the US mobile operators use both CDMA and GSM, as well as different frequencies and spectrum blocks, meaning that few phones really can go between two carriers, much less all of them. The transition to LTE networks was supposed to help with that, but so far LTE hasn’t gotten us any closer to devices that can be used on multiple carriers. In fact, Verizon and AT&T, the two carriers with the largest US LTE networks, operate on different spectrum blocks in the 700MHz band, making their devices incompatible with one another.
At least, their current devices are incompatible, because the wireless chips in current smartphones can only support one of the spectrum blocks in the band. However, according to Qualcomm that may soon change. The company, which makes various smartphone components used in a number of devices, says that they have plans for a smartphone chip that could support up to three different blocks of spectrum in any frequency range below 1GHz, three blocks above 1GHz, and even one block in extra high frequency bands of up to 2.5GHz. In more practical terms, this means that a device with the chip would be able to work on AT&T, Verizon, and possibly Sprint, T-Mobile, and many other LTE networks with the same hardware. Although not technologically the same, it is in practice similar to quad-band GSM chips that allow devices like the Galaxy Nexus to work on multiple carriers and HSPA+ “4G” networks. In addition, the chip will be built on a 28nm process, which should make it more battery efficient than current LTE chips and improve battery life.
Qualcomm says that the chip will be ready for manufacturers by July of this year, which means that we could likely see it in the next generation of handsets, as soon as the holiday season. Provided Qualcomm’s chip actually lives up to these promises, it could be quite a big deal. Primarily, it could allow the likes of Samsung to make one device for US markets that would work on all the carriers. In other words, there would be no need for specially customized carrier versions. It remains to be seen how the carriers will actually react to a shift like this, but I doubt they will let branded devices go away easily. Still, Qualcomm’s new chip could be the beginning of a new mobile market in the US, where even carrier branded devices could work on most other carriers, and perhaps begin to change the way smartphones and service are sold.