Rogers takes Android users off the air

rogersfail-wIn an effort to force users of its HTC Dream to do a software update that fixes a 911 call bug, Rogers has disconnected Internet from all its Android customers. Here’s the full text I just received on my phone:

Rogers/Fido Safety Message: URGENT Reminder 911 Calls HTC Dream software update: Mandatory software update is now available to help ensure 911 calls are completed from your phone. Please go immediately to on your PC to download.

In order to help ensure 911 calls are completed internet access was temporarily disabled on your phone at 01/24/10 6:00AM EST. To reactivate internet service, please complete your software update immediately. Upon completion, internet access will be re enabled within 24 hours.

For users of Macintosh and Windows 7, please call 1- 888-764-3771(1-888-ROGERS1) for update instructions.

We apologize for the inconvenience but we prioritize customer safety above all.

The issue stems from a requirement that 911 services have access to GPS data, but it’s worsened by the fact that Rogers insists on using its own version of Google’s Android OS, with its own restrictions and application icons, rather than staying in step with a more broadly tested operating system.

Other carriers, such as T-Mobile, unlock handsets that are purchased outright, leaving the choice of operating system and upgrades to the user. Two weeks ago, for example, I bought a Nokia handset at a T-Mobile store for the full $50 price, and within 24 hours of asking, T-Mobile had sent me the unlock code. Canadian carriers don’t buy this; in fact, they claim that unlocking a phone constitutes copyright infringement.

That means that even if you buy your phone outright, or earn out a three-year contract, the phone you own is locked to the carrier from whom you purchased it forever — even though the carrier has recouped the full cost of the phone (something that’s being contested in court.) In the case of the Android, subscribers are forced to use only Rogers-approved update methods, and only to upgrade to Rogers-certified versions of the Android OS. And those update methods don’t work for Mac and Windows 7. So Rogers’ policies have backed it into a corner: a locked phone cripples its ability for customers to update it, and its only resort is to disconnect contracted services in order to force an upgrade.

Android forums are full of speculation that this is actually an attempt to identify legitimate phones on the network, since Rogers’ Terms of Service doesn’t permit unlocked phones. However, since other HTC handsets aren’t affected, this seems unlikely. But according to one poster who contacted Rogers, “Rogers does not allow any non-rogers provided and supported phones on their network. Connecting a non-rogers phone to the rogers network, is a breach of contract, as outline in the terms and conditions.” And apparently the new patch eliminates one of the existing vectors for unlocking the phone.

The CRTC, Canada’s regulatory body for communications, forced Rogers to make the upgrade happen by the end of this week. And the carrier is crediting its customers with a month’s data services ($30). But is the company using these strong-armed tactics to control the spread of rooted Androids on their network? At the very least, Rogers will have to realize that the cost of locked phones and thuggish protectionism is higher than they thought.

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