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Engadget Exclusive: Your phone is obsolete - AT&T Wireless replacing phones

Peter Rojas

Attention AT&T Wireless customers: your phone is about to become obsolete. If you own one of the cellphones listed below and live in the New York metropolitan area, Northern New Jersey, Eastern Pennsylvania, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Las Vegas, or Seattle, there's a good chance that AT&T doesn't want you to use it much longer.  

Explaining why is a little hairy, but here's the scoop: When AT&T initially launched their GSM cellular network a few years ago, they used their license for the 850 MHz slice of the radio spectrum for their analog cellular networks and TDMA (another, older cell standard). So because that part of the spectrum was already being used, they decided to launch their GSM network at 1900 MHz part of the spectrum, just like other mobile carriers like Pac Bell and T-Mobile did. In fact, none of this even mattered because GSM cellphones that operated on the 850 MHz part of the spectrum weren't even for sale then. In the past few years compatible cellphones have become available, so Cingular and AT&T gradually have been phasing out obsolete protocols (like TDMA and analog) and building out their GSM networks at the newly freed space around 850 MHz.

Just take a look at the map below. AT&T's GSM 850 network is indicated by dark blue (the map also shows part of Cingular's network). Subscribers in these areas are the ones most likely to be affected by AT&T's replacement program.


Once compatible phones became available (in early 2003), Cingular leapt on the chance and quickly changed their entire lineup to GSM 850/1900 models, even in areas like California, where they only use the 1900 MHz band. Despite their buildout of their 850 MHz GSM network, AT&T took their time, continuing to offer popular new models that were missing the 850 MHz band, and thus wouldn't work with that part of their network. Astoundingly, among these were every single smartphone offered on AT&T prior the Treo 600, including the popular Nokia 3650, the Pocket PC Phone, Motorola's MPx200, and those BlackBerry email communicators that business users love.

An army of subscribers who could only use half the airwaves AT&T owns was making AT&T's reputation for poor reception and coverage even worse. To rectify the situation, AT&T Wireless recently started quietly offering free replacement phones for anyone using a phone that isn't compatible with the 850 MHz network, but the catch is that the "upgrade" often isn't an upgrade at all. For instance, customers with an obsolete Sony Ericsson T68i are getting Sony Ericsson's T226, which lacks Bluetooth and has worse battery life than its replacement. Although AT&T has been trying to clear out their stock of Sony Ericsson T616, the model that succeeded the T68i, customers are not being offered this phone as a replacement. Subscribers who use the Nokia 3650 smartphones are being offered the Nokia 3100, 3200 or Siemens C56 - none of which even come close to what was the phone of choice last year for mobloggers. In fact, of the replacements offered, only the Nokia 3200 even has a camera! And what about users of Nokia's N-Gage, Siemens' SX56 Pocket PC Phone, or Motorola's MPX 200 Smartphone, none of which are compatible with 850 MHz? There's been no word from AT&T about the fate of these phones (we've contacted AT&T regarding this, and have not heard back from them yet).

The now obsolete phones will still work on the AT&T network, however they will continue to have poor reception. Use them at your own risk. 

These are the models once carried by AT&T that are affected:

Motorola MPx200
Nokia 3650
Nokia 8390
Nokia N-Gage
RIM Blackberry 7210
Siemens SX56 (Pocket PC Phone)
Sony Ericsson T68
Sony Ericsson T68i

These are the free replacements that should offer improved reception. However unless you have the Nokia 8390, each is a downgrade in features from the phone they are replacing. They are (pictured from left to right):

Nokia 3100
Nokia 3200
Siemens C56
Sony Ericsson T226


There are a few cases on Howard Forums of users being able to actually upgrade their T68i to a T616 if they sign up for a two-year contract, but there does not seem to be an official policy in place. On the other hand, if you have handset insurance and "lost" your t68, perhaps the T616 might be offered to you as a replacement (though we don't encourage or recommend that you engage in insurance fraud). The same sort of situation may exist for the Nokia 3650 and its new replacement, the 3620, but since we're not AT&T reps, we can't say for sure.

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