Changing Carriers with Hotspots & Smartphones
This is a frequent question as Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile launch new plans and devices.
Mobile internet seekers often tend to be on the lookout for the next best data plan, which may be on a different carrier than their current options. It makes sense to want to repurpose existing equipment when switching carriers or plans.
Or perhaps you want to minimize that number of gadgets taking up space in your RV or boat, while maximizing the number of data plans you have available.
There are any number of scenarios where RVers, cruisers, and other nomads may want to use a device on a different carrier than it was originally intended for. However the carriers make it difficult, as most mobile hotspot devices they sell tend to be optimized for only their network.
So is it possible to use a device on another carrier - and more importantly, is it optimal?
The answer, like so many things with mobile internet, is: "it depends."
Read on to learn more.
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In the olden days of cellular technology (ie. just a few years ago), each carrier used different technology for their networks and this technology was simply not compatible with other networks. In the 2G/3G days, there were two competing and fundamentally very different wireless technologies: Sprint and Verizon used a technology known as CDMA, and most of the rest of the world used a standard known as GSM.
Back in these bad-old-days, multi-carrier compatibility often meant a device had to have multiple cellular radios and modems, adding additional expense and complexity, so many devices only worked well for a single carrier.
But even in a now LTE world, each carrier's network is distributed on different frequency bands, which may make using one carrier's device on another network not optimal. And to make matters more complicated, some carriers place locks on their devices restricting use to their network without jumping through hoops.
It's essential to understand these considerations when deciding if the device in your hands will work well enough with the carrier you desire.
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Cellular Band Compatibility
Know what bands your carrier broadcasts on, and what bands your device can operate on - this is key to knowing how optimal a device will be on a certain carrier.
Device Locking & Blacklists
Some carriers lock devices to their network. This section includes the locking policies of each carrier, and how to get your device unlocked.
Your device and your data plan need to be compatible to work with each other, this section dives in deeper.
Configuring Devices for Other Carriers
Conclusion: Good, But Not Native
A repurposed hotspot is a great tool to have in your connectivity arsenal - but it is important to keep in mind that you are giving up a few perks that you would get from a native hotspot.
The biggest downside is that a non-native hotspot is unlikely to support all the cellular bands for a different carrier - and the device will likely not work at all if it doesn't support at least one core band.
Truly universal hotspots are still a rarity, but broader band coverage is becoming more common. And even without full support for another network, a non-native device can often provide some desperately needed internet access in a pinch.
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