Feature Article

November 20, 2013

FCC Tells Industry to Unlock Phones

When I tried moving my old iPhone to a new cellular carrier, it was a hellish process. My iPhone was locked, which meant I investigated a variety of schemes to let the phone switch networks. At first I tried jailbreaking the phone, but given my firmware I ultimately had to buy a special sim card tray with a circuit that unlocked my phone every time I typed a special key sequence while praying toward the West.

If only I had known that my out-of-contract phone could be unlocked freely by AT&T, much of the hassle and cost could have been avoided. This is what the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the U.S. is now asking of cellular carriers; let users who have completed their contract be able to easily unlock their phone.

The FCC and wireless trade group, CTIA, have been developing a policy for the industry's Consumer Code for the past eight months that will address the unlock issue.

Finally, though, the FCC has gotten fed up with the foot-dragging.

"Enough time has passed, and it is now time for the industry to act voluntarily or for the FCC to regulate," FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler, wrote in a letter to CTIA president, Steve Largent. Wheeler urged the industry to adopt the new unlocking policy before the start of the holiday season.

The letter noted that while carriers agree that consumers should be able to unlock their devices once they are out of contract, they have not agreed on a policy of notifying customers when their device is eligible for unlocking.

Basically, if the industry told people they could have their phones unlocked for free, more people like myself would do it.

“Absent the consumer's right to be informed about eligibility, any voluntary program would be a hollow shell," Wheeler wrote in his letter.

CTIA itself has advocated the passage of a recent bill in Congress that would repeal the Library of Congress decision that sparked off the unlocking debate this year.

The Library of Congress, which is responsible for setting rules related to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, last year stopped exempting cell phone unlocking from legal enforcement. This meant that it became illegal to unlock your phone.

Oops! Good thing my provider has since unlocked my iPhone for me.

Edited by Cassandra Tucker

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