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Why Your Nexus One Won't Work on AT&T 3G

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Google’s (s goog) Nexus One phone is a heap of fun to play with, but so far in the U.S. the only 3G network you can access it on is that of T-Mobile. There are two issues at play here: the underlying technology a cell-phone network runs on, such as HSPA for 3G or EDGE for 2G, and the frequency the radios in the device use to communicate. In the case of the Nexus One, it uses the 900MHz, 1700MHz and 2100MHz frequency bands for 3G data and the GSM 850MHz, 900Mhz, 1800MHz and 1900MHz bands for 2G. Because the T-Mobile 3G network in the U.S. is listening for 3G data in the 1700MHz and 2100MHz bands, it’s the only U.S. network with which the Nexus One phone can communicate.

AT&T’s 3G network listens for phones transmitting 3G traffic in the 850 MHz and 1900 MHz bands, which the Nexus One cannot do. All it can do is send 2G traffic in those bands, so it does, making a slower data experience for those using the Nexus One in Ma Bell’s mobile network. As the world moves to services like Long Term Evolution, which carriers will roll out this year and will be widespread in 2012, it will be easier to share devices across networks, but frequency bands will still be an issue.

24 Responses to “Why Your Nexus One Won't Work on AT&T 3G”

    • Rob, at the time this article was written (see above), Google was only offering a Nexus One with 3G support on T-Mobile’s network. It wasn’t until roughly 10 weeks later (mid-March) that a Nexus One for AT&T’s 3G network was offered.

  1. The unfortunate truth is it’s very possible to build a phone that works on all U.S. frequencies. All that is needed is a programmable multiplexer chip, the chip that controls which frequencies are available for a phone to use. The technology has been available for years in other applications.

    In one scenario, the frequencies a phone uses would be set in response to the insertion of a carrier’s SIM, in another a user could set them directly in the OS.

    The truth is unfortunate because U.S. carriers and their suppliers have had little motivation to apply the technology, indeed, it has been entirely the opposite. If a phone, especially one that’s in great demand, is locked into a carriers’ particular mix of allotted spectrum, so much the better as far as the carriers are concerned. Even better still is a customer can’t easily move a liked phone to another network.

    It will probably take action on the part of the FCC to remedy the situation by mandating that all cell phones sold in the U.S. work on all U.S. frequencies, for voice and data.

  2. pdxPhone

    Hmm…? google nexus one spec web page states that it supports:
    UMTS Band 1/4/8 (2100/AWS/900)

    Band 1 is for AT&T 1900/2100. Am I missing something here? Plus Nexus One is available in Hong Kong and Singapore which is not Band 4 either.


  3. If I get a Motorola Milestone here in Europe (GSM version of the Droid) will it work, even partially on 3G? (It only supports 3G on 900/2100MHz)

    The only 3G commonality is 2100 which T-Mobile US uses, so does that mean it would work in some areas, or does the phone need to support both 1700 & 2100 to work on 3G in the US on T-Mobile?

    • europe has 3G on the 2100 mhz band. the t-mobile usa (aws) version is an unusual hybrid with a big gap between the transmit and receive bands and uses the 1700 mhz and 2100 mhz frequencies at the same time. an AWS 1700/2100 mhz phone may or may not also support european 2100 mhz. a european 2100 mhz will not work on aws 1700/2100.

  4. Stacy,

    LTE is turning out to be as complicated or even more than 3G WCDMA as far as band planning goes. VZW and ATT are going to use 700 MHz here in the US and Europe is probably going for 2.6 GHz. Also, as carriers re-farm spectrum, any and all of the prior used bands can be potentially re-used for LTE. As of now, there are upwards of almost 15 UMTS bands in the 3GPP spec.

    This multi-band problem doesn’t get easier with LTE, it probably gets harder…


    • NC, that’s good to know. I had thought about writing about the problem of getting 4G on the same frequencies worldwide, but thought it might be too wonky and hoped the antenna and radio guys could cram everything in a phone so consumers wouldn’t have to think about it. Sounds like I might have to dig into that more. Thanks!

  5. Stacey,

    Nexus One does not seem to work on T-Mobile 3G either for few folks. (Other 3G phones work fine)

    @Brett Glass,

    How is Google monitoring life on mobile phones? Can you/someone please expand?

  6. Brett Glass

    I wouldn’t get a Google phone. Want an unscrupulous billion dollar monopoly corporation (the same one that hosts an e-mail service that scans users’ mail for personal information) to track your every move and sell the dossier it builds on you to the highest bidder? Then let Google monitor your life. I won’t.

  7. This is great original reporting Stacey. It certainly implies anyone wanting to buy the Nexus One should get it with T-Mobile, not ATT.

    Speaking of Nexus One, in all the coverage of its launch last week, one thing I didn’t see was any analysis of whether it makes sense for a consumer to pay full price for the phone and avoid a two-year contract. Do you (or does anyone) know whether if you pay full price (~$500) you pay any less per month for a voice/data service? Or is the only benefit of paying full price the ability to switch phones next year without paying a service termination fee?

    • If you buy the phone unlocked then you can opt for one of T-Mobile’s “Even More Plus” plans, which are cheaper than its “Even More” plans.

      I was actually surprised that people that are interested in this phone would be unaware of the different 3G bands used by America’s two major GSM providers. shrug

      • Anonymous

        Under the Even More Plus phone, you save $20/month.

        The locked phone puts you under a 24 month contract, and you pay $180 for the phone; under this purchase you’re not eligible for Even More Plus.

        The unlocked phone costs $530, or $350 more than the locked phone. Considering the $20/month plan savings, this means you’ve paid for the difference after 16 months, and from that point forward you continue to save $20/month.

        If you’re inclined to use T-Mobile and stick with them, unlocked is the way to go.

    • As to your last comment, it all depends. Before buying any phone and signing up for any service, everyone should carefully analyze their personal usage patterns.

      Personally, I’m usually well covered by WiFi access points which serve for both voice and data, so that a two-year contract really doesn’t make sense. I use AT&T’s GoPhone service with MEdia NET, purchasing voice and data only as needed. Typically my bill for both only runs $200 – $300 a year with the added bonus of no monthly bills, taxes or fees.

      Paying for a unlocked unsubsidized phone makes since for me.