Ting isn’t just supporting Sprint phones, it’s hinting at a much freer device market

Ting, the innovative mobile virtual network operator that offers pay-for-what-you-use shared plans, is expanding it mobile phone options. Instead of buying a device directly from Ting, the company will roll out a BYOD, or Bring Your Own Device, phone option in the last quarter of this year. Supported devices have to work on Sprint’s (s s) network — which Ting uses to provide its services — although in a blog post announcing the details, Ting opens up the possibility of supporting phones from other carriers.

Consumers that have a Windows Phone (s msft) or Android (s goog) device compatible with Sprint’s network can make the move. Why would they when Sprint’s plans offer unlimited data, seen as the holy grail for smartphones? Not every Sprint customer needs or wants to pay for unlimited data when they can get by on a less expensive plan. Ting could fit the bill, so to speak, with its consumer-friendly rates and no contracts. Customers pick a plan based on needs, but are only charged for what they use. If usage for a billing cycle was actually in a lower plan tier, Ting charges the lower rate.

This is just the first step

The BYOD movement doesn’t surprise me, and I think its a progressive move by Ting. What’s more intriging to me is that Ting is pushing for a cellular model that the U.S. has never supported: The ability to use any phone on the carrier of your choice. Here’s the tip-off from Ting’s blog post, emphasis mine.

“Before we dive in to the details on our upcoming BYOD plan, we want to manage some expectations. First, we’ll only be able to do BYOD for devices that work on the Sprint network initially [CLARIFICATION: and both Boost and Virgin mobile devices are excluded]. That said, this is a vital first step toward a more fluid mobile world where devices can move between carriers. We’ll continue to push. Second, this is not a backdoor to get the iPhone on Ting. BlackBerry, push to talk (PTT) and a small list of specific handsets won’t be BYODable (hey, it’s a word now). At least not immediately.”

That could mean even more innovation from Ting in the future if it can provide access to other cellular frequencies and technologies through additional wholesale agreements. As an example of this progressive thinking: Venko builds phones for the Brazil telecom market that can switch between four carriers, choosing the cheapest one for each individual call, per the Economist. Brazil is more of an ideal world for this type of phone flexibility, however, as most of its carriers have all settled on GSM technology in the 900/1800 MHz bands. Here in the U.S. we really don’t have true competition between carriers because of the different technologies and frequencies used. So for now, with a few rare exceptions, we can’t easily take phones from one network to another.

I wonder if Ting is considering the bigger picture opportunity and future where we can do that in the U.S. It certainly appears to be so based on the company’s blog posts. Are there technical challenges to overcome? With the various frequencies and bands that each carrier has to use, absolutely. Even LTE in the 700 MHz band is split up between Verizon(s vz)(s vod) and AT&T(s t); their respective LTE devices won’t work on the other’s network.

Who will bring phone freedom? Not the large carriers.

Samsung Galaxy NexusThe truth is: None of the big four U.S. carriers have any incentive to push an agenda of “buy one phone and use it on the network of your choice”. In fact, they have a disincentive to do so because their shareholders expect continued subscriber growth and a rise in the average revenue per user. Opening up the floodgates of network choice would only lower both of those metrics, all things being equal.

But perhaps some outside the box thinking from Ting could be in the cards to upset the apple cart. Say, a phone that Ting asks Samsung or Motorola to build with support for multiple network frequencies. A solution like this isn’t unheard of: My Samsung Galaxy Nexus supports five different ones, allowing me to use it on either T-Mobile or AT&T, depending on the SIM card I insert. Sure, it’s a long shot, but it has more of a chance than hoping for one of the major carriers to take up the freedom of network choice flag.

So if any company can succeed in bringing mobile network choice to the U.S. it’s going to be a company such as Ting. It could buy wholesale service from multiple network providers and find or get hardware to take advantage of such arrangements. Given the flexibility of Ting’s plans that vary based on actual usage, my money is on Ting to make it happen — if anyone can — even in some small way, such as using Verizon phones on the Ting network. In that case, Ting won’t just be a traditional virtual network operator; it would create a virtual network from various operators, brining more flexibility to U.S. consumers.

It’s challenging, but there’s an opportunity here

We asked Ting about the idea of phones from other networks and got the following response:

“It depends on the device. We have been hacking away at this ourselves. We have not been unable to unlock most Verizon devices so far. We have had success with some. Again, this will have a lot to do with Sprint’s initiatives and efforts. And reciprocal arrangements (or retaliations) between Sprint and Verizon. But we think it should be possible for a lot of devices.”

The window of opportunity isn’t completely closed then and it sounds like Ting is at least considering a future of possibilities. And at our Mobilize event next month, we have a full panel dedicated to the MVNO model and how these virtual cellular companies are gaining momentum in the U.S. We’ll be sure to discuss this and other related topics specific to the MVNO market.