Wireless Carriers To Help Consumers Unlock Phones
"This Is Simple: People Should Be Able To Unlock The Devices They've Purchased If They Wish, With Or Without Carrier Approval. It's A Common-Sense Change To The Law: If You've Bought Something You Should Be Able To Do Whatever You Want With It, Whether It's Modifying It, or Unlocking It. You Shouldn't Need A Massive Corporation's Permission."
Monty Henry, Owner
Major wireless carriers committed Thursday (12-12-2013) to allowing consumers to keep their cellphones when they switch providers, in a voluntary move backed by federal regulators.
AT and T Inc., T-Mobile USA Inc., U.S. Cellular Corp. and Verizon Wireless signed on to the agreement, which requires carriers to "unlock" devices or ask manufacturers to do so within two days of receiving a consumer's request.
The move in effect codifies practices that many cellphone providers already have adopted, and responds to calls from consumer groups that said users shouldn't be locked into using their phone with a single provider.
Still, the industry was careful to note that people can't necessarily take their phone to a new provider and keep the same services, because an unlocked device may not be fully compatible with other carriers' networks. A phone operating on a new network may support voice but not data services.
Some mobile devices are sold unlocked, while others require a software update or other change to accommodate a new wireless provider. Under the agreement, providers that lock phones must notify consumers when their devices are eligible for unlocking, typically at the end of their wireless contract. Carriers also can choose to unlock phones remotely when they are eligible.
The deal also covers prepaid cellphone providers, which must unlock customer cellphones within one year of initial activation.
"Today's commitment by wireless providers will provide consumers with more information about when, and how, to move their devices from one network to another compatible network, should they choose to do so," said Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, which backed the agreement.
The issue drew attention earlier this year after the librarian of Congress, who has oversight of some copyright issues, ended a long-standing exemption to the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act and banned consumers from unlocking phones. Even after that decision, carriers were allowed to unlock phones on consumers' behalf.
The White House and lawmakers weighed in on the librarian's move, backing the right of consumers not to be tied to a single carrier.
"Consumers who satisfy the terms of their contracts should not be subject to civil and criminal penalties if they want to take their device to a new carrier," said Mignon Clyburn, one of the FCC's five commissioners.
Consumer groups cheered Thursday's announcement but maintained their criticism of the underlying law that blocks consumers from engaging in unlocking themselves.
The agreement allows carriers to charge a fee for unlocking the phones of noncustomers. George Slover of Consumers Union said his group would be watching to ensure the fees don't price consumers out of unlocking their phones.
Tom Sugrue of T-Mobile US said the unlocking agreement would promote competition. "There is additional progress to be made on unlocking, such as the support of a robust secondary market in mobile devices," he said.
The nation's top wireless carriers today relented on the cell phone unlocking issue, committing to a voluntary set of principles that will make it easier for consumers to unlock their devices.
"We believe this agreement will continue to foster the world-leading range of devices and offerings that Americans enjoy today," CTIA, the wireless industry trade association, said in a statement.
The carriers that have signed on are AT and T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon Wireless.
The move comes about a month after the FCC's new chairman, Tom Wheeler, penned a note to Steve Largent, president and CEO of CTIA, to push for "an amendment to your Consumer Code in which this industry would address consumers' rights to unlock their mobile wireless devices once their contracts are fulfilled."
Wheeler backed a five-point plan, but CTIA was apparently not supportive of a provision that required carriers to either notify customers when their devices were eligible for unlocking or just unlock those devices for free, automatically, when eligible.
Specifically, the carriers have committed to: posting information about their unlocking policies; unlocking the phones of customers who have satisfied their contracts; unlocking the phones of pre-paid customers no later than one year after they first become a customer; notifying customers when their phones are eligible for unlocking and/or automatically unlocking; unlocking devices within two business days; and unlocking devices for deployed military personnel.
Largent said CTIA will recommend that members add these principles to the group's consumer code. Once adopted, they will implement three of the principles within three months and the remainder within a year.
CTIA, however, stressed that unlocking a phone doesn't necessarily make a device interoperable on all wireless networks.
The debate dates back to an October 2012 decision from the Library of Congress's (LOC) Copyright Office, which gave consumers a 90-day window to unlock their phones without carrier permission before that practice became illegal in January.
That did not sit well with OpenSignal's Sina Khanifar, who added a petition to the White House site asking for the decision to be reversed. It passed the 100,000 e-signature threshold needed for an official White House response, and that response was posted in March, with the Obama administration issuing its support for cell phone unlocking.
In a Thursday statement, Khanifar said CTIA's decision is "a positive step forward," but he said Congress still needs to act on the issue.
Khanifar issued his support for Rep. Bob Goodlatte's Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, which he said will "be a first step towards fixing the over-reaching copyright laws that limit people's rights with respect to the electronics they buy."
CTIA also supports that bill, which is still making its way through the House Judiciary Committee.
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