There’s a lot of stuff out there detailing the technical superiority of CDMA networks over GSM (or more accurately, the TDMA-based GSM standard), most of which is written by ex-Qualcomm engineers who still nurture a smoldering chubby for their former employer. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; I would lack both the tech savvy and the professional credibility to dispute any such claims if I even wanted to.
But as a consumer (my secondary arena of expertise), I could give less than a greasy speckled shit about which protocol is superior. Seriously.
While the development and deployment of the technology behind the CDMA air interface is fascinating, it offers little tangible benefit to the end-user; I don’t care if Verizon or Sprint or Alltel can squeeze eight times as many calls onto one channel as can AT&T or T-Mobile. I can roll up my shirt and enumerate on the fingers of my own freaky-ass Kuato twin the number of instances that my GSM phone has given me a “network unavailable” prompt while trying to make a call, or that someone has gotten a “user not in service area” message when attempting to reach me on AT&T. Each has occurred more than enough times with my CDMA provider (while I was unquestionably in a home service area) to color me perpetually disenchanted with Qualcomm’s nifty lil’ configuration.
Take into consideration the SIM, which allows a shameless telewhore like me to not only switch equipment on a whim, but to purchase either branded or unlocked handsets off the frikken’ rack and have them up and running in the parking lot. Instead of having to call customer service and wade through sixteen tedious prompts, then wait ten minutes for a rep, then explain that I want to change phones, then read off the ESN (and listen as they read it back to ensure accuracy), then program the phone, then perform not one but two test calls, what takes twenty minutes with a CDMA carrier takes thirty seconds on GSM. Swap SIM, done. Goodnight.
The dreaded for instance; Friday night I found a new GoPhone at Best Buy, the Nokia 6085, which I’d considered when signing a contract with AT&T the week before. Intoxicated by the overwhelming volume of choices, my own catpiss judgment prevented me from making a good decision, and instead I wound up with a dick-in-a-box. Whatever. The inherent versatility of the SIM allowed me to make a mistake like that without chaining me to a piece of ossified Velociraptor shit for the next two years.
The 6085 was an awesome deal. Not only did it come with a stereo headset, but with a data cable and a 512MB MicroSD card as well. It gets great reception, has great earpiece quality, and the housing and keypad feel tight and compact with no wiggles, rattles, or squeaks. The external display is next to useless, other than as a clock, and the main screen isn’t the finest you’ll ever ogle, but the latter contributed to an out-of-the-box battery time of two full days.
Who, then, benefits from the CDMA interface? No doubt the folks who developed the stuff will trumpet that everyone benefits, but as a heavy user, I just don’t see it. If I can make calls, deliver texts promptly (another area in which my CDMA provider supped with the plecostomus), and not have to recharge my phone every day, I’m happy. Most of those things can happen on a CDMA network, but rarely together, and never all at once.
The true winners with CDMA are the royalty-earning patent holder (Qualcomm), and the carriers who can increase network capacity without deploying more and more costly equipment. It’s a much more efficient system, but efficiency doesn’t always translate to a better experience on the user’s end.
What’s good for the corporation is very rarely also good for the consumer, as any potential savings will almost always be passed into the profit margin instead of your pocket.