FCC and carriers finally agree on cell phone unlocking

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.