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Non-AT&T users have long lamented Apple's decision to make the iPhone exclusive to one provider. And, for nearly the exact same amount of time, many of those same users have been searching for a way to get the touchscreen powerhouse to work with every other provider under the sun. Thankfully, their efforts have not been in vain, and today it is possible to use an Apple iPhone on many popular providers aside from AT&T. However, the ability to use the iPhone on a non-AT&T network depends on what kind of technology the provider uses. You can't use your iPhone on any service but there are options beyond AT&T.
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GSM Providers (AT&T, T-Mobile)
Apple's iPhone uses GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) technology to operate on a wireless network. Of the top US carriers, only AT&T and T-Mobile use this technology for their network. This makes using an iPhone on the T-Mobile network a rather simple process. Many smaller cellular providers use GSM as well (Cellular One, Einstein Wireless), but for this example we will be using T-Mobile, as they are by far the largest.Here are the steps to use your iPhone on T-Mobile.
2. Make sure you have T-Mobile service (obviously). Sign up for whatever plan best suits your needs. Being that you'll be using a smartphone on this plan, I would suggest unlimited data, as you'll be using a lot of it. Once you have picked your new plan you need to make sure to get a 3G SIM card for use with your phone. The SIM card is essentially the brains that your phone will use to connect to your provider's network.
3. Before placing your new SIM card in, go into the settings menu of your iPhone and click on General. Then, click on Network. On this menu, click the 3G slider to the "Off" position.
4. Insert your T-Mobile SIM card. When picking up your SIM card at your T-Mobile center, they should provide you with a small tool tool to open the SIM door on the top of your phone (as seen on the right). If they don't give you one right away, be sure to ask, as it is crucial for this step. You can leave your phone on while doing this. Once you have clicked the SIM card back into place you should notice the "Carrier" icon at the top change to T-Mobile.
5. You're almost done! Now all you need to do is alter one setting in the iPhone to make it compatible with T-Mobile's data network. Simply go into the iPhone's settings menu. Click on General, then click Network. Here, click Cellular Data Network. There should be a setting called APN under the Cellular Data title, click it. Here, type 'epc.tmobile.com'. Then, exit out to your home screen and boot up your web browser to be sure it is working properly. For other, smaller (not T-Mobile) GSM carriers you will need to find out what APN address they use for their data network. A short call to your local provider's store should yield a quick answer.
That's it! You now have a non-AT&T iPhone!
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CDMA Providers (Verizon, Alltel, Sprint)
CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) technology is what the other half of the major wireless providers use to get voice and data to you. Unfortunately, GSM and CDMA simply aren't compatible. Think of them as two different languages. If you were to ask someone who doesn't speak your language a question, you wouldn't get an answer. Or, if you did get an answer, it would likely be wrong, and you wouldn't be able to understand it anyway.
A phone needs to be built to use either GSM or CDMA from the start, so at the moment there is little hope of using any current iPhone on a non-GSM network. That's the problem with GSM and CDMA. The iPhone speaks a completely different language than Verizon or Sprint, and the two are simply incapable of having a decent conversation. For that reason you can't use your iPhone on any service, it has to be a GSM service.
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CDMA iPhone on the horizon?
Apple, like any company, has a responsibility to make its products available to as many willing consumers as possible. And, because of that, there have long been rumors that an iPhone with CDMA capabilities is just around the corner. However, at this point in time there is little to no concrete evidence that a non-GSM iPhone is in production. It would seem to make sense, as the demand for an iPhone made for Verizon and similar networks has been nearly deafening. This issue always shows up as one of the top iPhone complaints.
Apple undoubtedly knows that there are consumers who would puchase an iPhone but simply aren't willing to switch their wireless carrier (or are contractually obligated to stay with their current carrier for years to come). Additionally, Apple is losing potential revenue from people jailbreaking their phone and using it with other GSM networks anyway. It seems as though it is just a matter of time before a CDMA iPhone hits the market, but we simply have no idea how long that time is.
So, until the day that Apple officially announces a new, CDMA iPhone, all those consumers who just have to get their hands on Apple's phone, your choices are limited to AT&T, T-Mobile, or other similar GSM providers.