CDMA vs GSM

So why is Ting using CDMA? It seems as if most of the world uses GSM so what makes CDMA better (or worse). Is one just easier to maintain? I know that it's probably not Ting's decision (more so Sprint's decision), but there must be some significant difference that I don't understand. Wouldn't it be better if every carrier was using the same method?

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14 comments
  • A lot of it is historical; CDMA evolved primarily in the US while GSM evolved primarily in Europe.

    Broadly speaking, deployed CDMA has an advantage in range (meaning either greater coverage or fewer towers needed). It also degrades more gracefully under load, meaning quality will suffer but you'll still get a call through, and the call handoff mechanism is better, leading to fewer dropped calls at introduction. CDMA was designed to be technically superior to GSM, providing greater efficiency to the carriers and a better security system. More of the US is currently covered by CDMA networks than GSM networks.

    GSM built in support for simultaneous voice and data channels, so you can browse while on a call. GSM radios tend not to require as much power as CDMA radios, leading to slightly better battery life. Deployed GSM networks have a larger footprint over the world as a whole, and the SIM standard provides an advantage in portability that CDMA lacks, so GSM is a lot more useful when traveling.

    There are patents affecting the use of both systems, so I'm sure that cost has been a factor in deployment.

    Those are broad strokes though. Things get more interesting when you examine the tech individual carriers use. For example, pretty much anything 3G on GSM networks is actually using technology loosely based on CDMA.

    All the carriers are moving toward LTE, and at some point VoLTE will become standard on new devices, relegating the GSM vs CDMA debate to legacy phones only. Unfortunately everyone still has different frequency assignments, so that won't mean an LTE phone is guaranteed to work on any carrier.

    As for why Ting chose Sprint, they commented in the recorded Google Hangout session that Sprint was pretty much the only carrier forward-looking enough to work with. (I'm paraphrasing, watch the video for the actual words used.)

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  • @Trevor,

    Thank you for the excellent explanation!

    Joe... 

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  • Very informative, thanks for the response.

     

    My biggest worry would be dropping $600 on a phone and then - in a year or so - seeing a carrier say that your device is no longer supported for our network. Do you think that's a feasible concern or possibility? I wouldn't feel comfortable with just throwing my phone away and having to buy a new one because of the standard changing.

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  • Nino, CDMA is here to stay for a long time. Longer than you'll use any phone you buy now. The only concern of buying a Ting or any CDMA device is if you plan on traveling outside of the US.

    However, I should let you know most phones you buy from a carrier (ie. Ting) will only work for that carrier unless unlocked. In Ting's case if the situation called for it you could theoretically have the Ting phone "unlocked' and then take it to Sprint. You can also bring an "unlocked" Sprint phone to Ting.

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  • Sounds good - that makes me feel more comfortable :P

     

    I've read before that certain people have gotten CDMA phones to work on GSM (with minor flaws). How is that possible? Are most phones these days made to work with both types? Also, like you said Matthew, if you were to travel to another country that only supports GSM you would definitely be out of luck when it comes to using the same phone, right?

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  • The two technologies are very different so I don't know how that would be possible. There are phones classified as "world phones" that have radios for both CDMA and GSM. It allows for CDMA in the US and GSM in other countries (GSM can not be enabled in the USA) Ting has carried the Motorola Photon and the Photon Q World phones. 

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  • Straight Talk offers both CDMA and GSM service so it wouldn't be impossible for Ting to branch out in that direction.  I would definitely switch to Ting in a minute if they offered GSM service.

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  • Martin,

    I am sure Ting / Tucows has nowhere near the sales volume or resources of Wal-Mart, who owns Straight Talk.

    Wal-Mart obviously has MVNO agreements with more than one carrier network. Ting is very busy getting all the wrinkles out in dealing with one carrier.

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  • Straight Talk is actually an América Móvil company, it's just a branding partnership with Walmart. América Móvil also owns Tracfone, NET10, Simple Mobile, Telcel America and the Lifeline-based Safelink Wireless.

    They're actually an interesting study in terms of a multi-carrier MVNO. On one hand, they've successfully put together a service that is carrier-independent on the surface, without changing prices or terms. On the other hand, the abstract does leak in nasty ways -- the coverage you actually get isn't necessarily what you think it will be, and they don't have clearly defined limits on things like data usage, instead opting for hostile notices. They've recently pulled out of their arrangement with AT&T, so T-Mobile is the only US GSM carrier new customers can get right now, which again cuts the coverage footprint. I don't know whether the roaming agreement is affected.

    I've seen a couple of other multi-carrier MVNOs, but they tend to have different prices and terms for each side of the service. I suspect Ting would have to do the same thing in order to maintain the customer-friendly transparency they have now, but that would unfortunately kill simplicity.

    Completely switching carriers is not fun; PlatinumTel is doing that now, and has not communicated to existing customers well at all. They are doing a pretty good job at pushing forward with their new partner though.

    It may not be a bad idea for Ting to branch out, but there are negative consequences to doing that, so it's something that has to be very carefully considered.

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  • @Nino: Somehow I didn't respond to that question earlier. As Zarthan says, there are a few phones that are specifically designed to support both, mainly for international travel purposes. Also, chip manufacturers are pushing toward single-chip solutions for cost reasons (having multiple manufacturing chains for variants of the same product is expensive), so more and more functionality is appearing on a single chip. Many times the real difference is in how much space they have to put amplifiers on the circuit board and antennas in the case.

    The Verizon Galaxy S3 is one well-talked-about example, where the SoC and antennas are the same between a few different GSM and CDMA variants, and it had SIM hardware for LTE support, so it turned out to be possible to reconfigure firmware to switch between radio modes for basic CDMA and GSM service too.

    The iPhone 5 is another example of being capable of both GSM and CDMA in some variants, at the cost of full LTE support (lack of space).

    This kind of thing is likely to become more common.

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  • Ting probably does have some growing to do before it can handle multiple carriers, and there's no telling how well their tiered approach will scale on another network, but I think it's something they should keep in the back of their mind.  With any luck technology (i.e. dual-protocol phones) will quiet the debate and provide an even greater range of choices for consumers.

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  • Will a phone on Ting still work on a wifi network internaitonally?  I think it would but I don't know much about it. 

    Thanks

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  • The phone should work on Wi-Fi internationally if the specific channel used by the Wi-Fi access point is also allowed in the IS. There are some Eurpoean countries that allow different frequencies for Wi-Fi.

    I had a coworker who flashed a UK ROM to his GSM ohone. His phone would not work on some of the US APs since some US channels are not allowed in the UK.

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  • There is another important difference between CDMA & GSM (with CDMA coming out on top).

    Radiation.  CDMA can operate at considerably lower levels than GSM phones.  Here is one page that talks about it: http://www.livestrong.com/article/490704-health-effects-of-gsm-vs-cdma/

    This reason, plus a better cost structure, will cause me to switch to Ting.

     

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