FCC and carriers finally agree on cell phone unlocking

By , Dec 12, 2013

Unlocked-iPhone 4S

Threatening regulatory action, the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was able to drive U.S. wireless carriers into a corner concerning their stance on cell phone unlocking. As much as carriers would want to lock phones to their network to make switching service that much harder, the FCC and major U.S. wireless companies have reached an agreement which will make it easier for people to unlock their devices and switch from one carrier to another.

The wireless association called CTIA, which represents U.S. carriers like AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon and U.S. Cellular, released a statement on Thursday confirming that all named carriers have agreed to the new cell phone unlocking principles put forth by the government…

These recommended principles should be added to CTIA’s Consumer Code for Wireless Service. Carriers must implement the new policies within twelve months.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said that if the carriers had not reached an understanding by year’s end, the FCC “was prepared to take regulatory action,” as per AllThingsD.

The principles, listed below, come down to a set of requirements mandating carriers to transparently post their unlocking practices on the web and, more importantly, to either allow folks to unlock their phones themselves once their contract has expired or unlock their devices automatically as soon as they’re eligible for unlocking.

CTIA notes in a statement that unlocking devices “may not necessarily mean full interoperability” because devices that work on one provider’s network “may not be technologically compatible with another wireless provider’s network” (think about the difference between AT&T’s GSM network and Verizon’s CDMA radio technology).

The statement also cautions that unlocking a device “may enable some functionality but not necessarily all”.

Here are the terms of the agreement:

Disclosure: Each carrier will post on its website its clear, concise, and readily accessible policy on postpaid and prepaid mobile wireless device unlocking.

Postpaid Unlocking Policy: Carriers, upon request, will unlock mobile wireless devices or provide the necessary information to unlock their devices for their customers and former customers in good standing and individual owners of eligible devices after the fulfillment of the applicable postpaid service contract, device financing plan or payment of an applicable early termination fee.

Prepaid Unlocking Policy: Carriers, upon request, will unlock prepaid mobile wireless devices no later than one year after initial activation, consistent with reasonable time, payment or usage requirements.

Notice: Carriers that lock devices will clearly notify customers that their devices are eligible for unlocking at the time when their devices are eligible for unlocking or automatically unlock devices remotely when devices are eligible for unlocking, without additional fee. Carriers reserve the right to charge non-customers/non-former customers a reasonable fee for unlocking requests. Notice to prepaid customers may occur at point of sale, at the time of eligibility, or through a clear and concise statement of the policy on the carrier’s website.

- Response Time: Within two business days after receiving a request, carriers will unlock eligible mobile wireless devices or initiate a request to the OEM to unlock the eligible device, or provide an explanation of why the device does not qualify for unlocking, or why the carrier reasonably needs additional time to process the request.

- Deployed Personnel Unlocking Policy: Carriers will unlock mobile wireless devices for deployed military personnel who are customers in good standing upon provision of deployment papers.

Carriers reserve the right to decline an unlock request if they have a reasonable basis to believe the request is fraudulent or the device is stolen.

I’m having some issues with the terms.

For instance, it would have been fairer if an unlocking fee was set in stone, as opposed to leaving it up to carriers to determine what “a reasonable fee” for unlocking non-customers’ devices should be. I also think carriers should be required to communicate their unlocking policy strictly at the time of purchase/point of sale in order to avoid any complaints and ambiguity later on.

Finally, that “carriers reserve the right to decline an unlock request if they have a reasonable basis to believe the request is fraudulent or the device is stolen” could be misused to prevent uninformed customers from jumping ship.

After the Library of Congress earlier this year outlawed cell phone unlocking on the basis that such practice violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the FCC worked with the Obama administration on fair unlocking policies that would benefit the end user.

From my vantage point, people should always be permitted to unlock their devices, no matter what.

Thoughts?

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  • chumawumba

    Unlocking as soon as your contract ends would be awesome.

    • Rowan09

      They do unlock phones when your contract ends. T-mobile does it and so does AT&T. I don’t know about now but when I was with AT&T you could get an unlock as long as you’re in good standing and 1 year into service with the new device.

  • Aurora

    I still don’t understand why contract phones are locked in the first place? As if unlocking the phone means I can skip out on my contract or something

    • Rowan09

      I think it’s a mental thing, if a customer knows their phone is locked to a company some believe they would have to buy another phone to switch. I know people would have to pay the fee for leaving but when people are aware of phones being unlocked they might leave and pay the balance to save money. I want this to go back to where unlocking was legal and cheap. The price has gone up from $3 to now $75-$90.

    • @dongiuj

      The situation we have is that the iphone is “free” on a two year contract. There are a lot of foreign people working in the country I’m living in and they have all tried getting an iPhone and then disappear out of the country when their visa has finished escaping the contract. Basically the phone becomes an iPod touch in their home country but they get it for free.

      • TylerCameron

        How is something like that even possible? Carriers require credit checks and several forms of ID to prove you are who you are…

      • @dongiuj

        Here all you need is a drivers licence or your “alien registration card”. That’s all the id you need. You are required to make an alien registration card if you stay is longer than 6 months. The alien registration card can show validity for a minimum of 3-5 years. That’s your ticket to getting a two year contract. Apart from these two pieces of id, there’s no other way.

  • Adithya Sairam

    What about Jailbreaking?

    • coLin

      Jailbreaking is the right to choose not to obey the Dictator Apple

      • Adithya Sairam

        Would that become illegal soon?

      • coLin

        It’s illegal for iPad. That’s for sure

      • Adithya Sairam

        What about iPods?

      • coLin

        It’s legal, but it might change

  • Yujin

    Unlocking after your contract end is a mere formality and most won’t use the device that long.

  • Dixon

    In Germany so far i know all carriers unlock the phone for free if the contract ends… They even unlock it while the cobtract is still running but you habe to pay about 200Eur which must be arou250-300usd…..

  • It’s Pete

    Locking is criminal. If you can’t trust a customer to pay their bil, don’t give them a phone. That’s why they do credit checks. In Canada, carriers charge $50 to unlock your device, which is just insane. All they are doing is moving your IMEI from the lock list to the unlock list (iPhone) or giving you a code for other devices. $50??? Disgusting.

  • appl3h4ck3r

    Oh this is good news!

  • Jason Masters

    Greed and control two huge motivators for these soulless companies with absolutely zero ethics.

  • Fidel castellanos

    THIS IS AMERICA BABY YEA!!!should always b like this

  • robinson

    its the same shit they won’t unlock your phone until 2 years

  • FrankensteinBlack

    Stupid question? Why not just buy an unlocked phone?

  • lemonhead

    in switzerland on swisscom, our phones are unlocked in the first place and there is no tethering limitation…
    but now it comes we pay more than 70 dollar a month for downloadspeeds 7.4mp/s & upload 3.4mp/s & free calling to every where inside switzerland..

    and then the roaming cost are of the hook

    So while it’s good that they’re unlocked we still pay a lot more for a lot less…

    so in the end it’s better to have them locked to a carrier & pay less in my point of view

  • matth633

    The real problem is the definition of “unlocking” Phones which have been paid for in full by the consumer are no longer the carriers, and therefore should be unlocked for cheap or free. Phones which have been “blacklisted” (stolen, or not paid for) should be illegal to unlock for any price.

  • Dave Thompson

    I bought a Samsung SIII from a friend, the IEME # is ok but it is through KODO and I use Virgin Service. The KODO reps and stores don’t want to unlock the phone so I can activate it on Virgin Network. What do I do???