Sprint: A Confused Mess

Up front I want to make it clear that I do not have (and have never had) Sprint mobile phone service in my name. Based on my experiences with them over the past few days, I am pretty certain I never will either. Let me explain more…

At work I have been looking into the strange battery usage alerts that seem to come from Samsung phones, and only a few Samsung phones, concerning one of our applications. I wrote up some of my early findings in a blog post on our company blog. The device I have in the office is a Samsung Galaxy S7; not a bad piece of hardware, but the software (Samsung’s version of Android 7.0) is less impressive in my opinion.

I have been running several test applications on this device trying to get it to generate one of the excessive battery usage alerts a few others have reported to us, but so far nothing. The one thing about my test device is that it doesn’t have service, so at the end of last week I started trying to get it activated.

SIM Unlocking

My first thought, since the hardware should work on AT&T here in the US, was to just swap the SIM from my Nexus 5X into it and see what happened. I was expecting that it would either work, or I would be asked for an unlock code. Instead, it just said the SIM was invalid in the notifications area. No option to enter an unlock code. I tried a SIM from another network too, and that was also just reported as invalid.

So, I sent a message to Sprint (the phone’s model is SM-G930P, and P suffix means Sprint) on Twitter. After a brief exchange in Twitter DMs, I was told this:

Basically, unless I can find the account this phone was used with, and have the account holder call them, the phone cannot be unlocked. They would actually prefer to see a perfectly good handset go into the landfill (or be recycled) than to unlock it. Most of the other carriers I have spoken to about unlocking phones will unlock one of their devices (and, remember, this is a Sprint model phone) as long as the IMEI is clean. This one’s IMEI is clean – I checked that at two different services online, and we’ve had the device since it was new.

It seems like a very short sighted policy to not unlock phones that are Sprint models. If they mandate these annoying locks be added to the firmware, they should be willing to unlock them on devices that are not subject to any of the reasons these locks were justified. The account thing is an excuse too since their network requires phones to be activated (rather than just having a SIM inserted in them), so they should be able to find the account this phone was used on by looking up the MEID/IMEI in their system.

Samsung Tech Support

I found a place online saying that Samsung would unlock Galaxy S7 devices if they were asked via their online chat. I tried that and they referred me to the telephone support. I called them, and while they were very helpful, they too were unable to SIM unlock it. Instead, they said that had to be handled by the carrier (which makes sense since they’re the ones that insisted on this evil SIM lock in the first place).

Online Unlocking Service

Having exhausted both the possible free options, I thought I’d try one of the widely recommended online services. I sent them an email asking about this phone since it didn’t put up the unlock code dialog when a “foreign” SIM was inserted into it (and all the online services say that is what should happen in that scenario). They got back to me and said they couldn’t unlock Sprint devices. Dead end. But I wonder what it is about Sprint devices that stop these services being able to handle them? They can unlock phones on the other networks…

Activating Sprint Service

Given that Sprint needed the phone to have been on their service for a while before they will unlock it, I caved and went to the Sprint store to see if they could activate pre-paid service on the phone. After a couple of months of that, perhaps I could cancel and get them to unlock the device. Plus it would get me service right now to do the testing I need to do.

Unfortunately, the store was unable to activate the phone on pre-paid service. Nor could they do it on post-paid service. The pre-pay service activation said the device was a post-paid service one, and the post-paid service activation said it was a pre-paid one. The guy in the store was understandably confused. So he has filed a ticket to see what is going on there.

Even more confusing to me is that a network in 2017 still thinks that phones need to be different models based on the type of service I am asking for. There is no reason why the phone model has to be different for a pre-pay service. There shouldn’t really be any reason why I can’t just move a SIM from one phone to another either (this works on real mobile networks; Sprint is still anchored to the vastly inferior CDMA network standard, and that I suspect is what is forcing this ridiculous activation process on users).

So, right now I have a Sprint phone that cannot be unlocked to be used on a real mobile network, and apparently cannot be activated on their network because the MEID is not recognized. If Sprint thinks this is how a network should be run, I can’t wait for T-Mobile to acquire them and fix them (i.e. fire everybody and dump the last vestiges of CDMA for good).

Environmental Impact

While it is obvious that these SIM locks are annoying to end users (and indeed there are regulations requiring networks remove them from phones that are no longer subject to contract restrictions), and that they serve mainly to prevent people moving between service providers (which is bad for competition and one of the main reasons why phone service is so expensive in the US compared to other places). What is perhaps less apparent is the environmental impact of these SIM locks. If these Sprint phones are unable to be used on different networks, and are so difficult to re-use even on Sprint’s own network, how many perfectly good phones will end up in the landfill or being sent for recycling? That is something that Sprint should be held responsible for. Their environmental policy [PDF] says:

Educate customers on the importance of recycling mobile devices and offer a broad range of collection options to increase the volume of devices collected for reuse or recycling.

It doesn’t say anything about making sure devices can be used for as long as possible before being recycled. That’s a huge omission from their environmental policy, but it seems that their SIM unlocking policy is designed to make sure phones are recycled rather than being passed on to new users, or taken to new networks.

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