On January 26th of 2013 cellphone locking in the United States effectively became illegal, at least without permission from your existing carrier. Although most carriers will unlock your device for a fee, there’s still a lot of confusion on the matter.
Since January, we’ve seen petitions calling for the ability to freely unlock mobile devices in the United States, and there has even been proposed legislation targeting the issue.
For the FCC’s part, they have long supported the idea of creating clear rules and guidelines when it comes to unlocking mobile devices and they have even been actively working with the CTIA for over eight months to create an amendment in its consumer code that will address our rights to unlock our phones and tablets. The problem is that these talks have gone nowhere.
Wheeler basically demanded that the CTIA work immediately with the FCC to make a change or he warned that the FCC will be forced to take regulatory action.
The good news is that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler isn’t going to let the CTIA continue to drag its feet. In a letter to the CTIA’s president Steve Largent, Wheeler basically demanded that the CTIA work immediately with the FCC to make a change or he warned that the FCC will be forced to take regulatory action.
According to Wheeler’s letter, the FCC has five key points that they want the CTIA’s amendment to address:
- provide a clear, concise and readily accessible policy on unlocking
- unlock mobile devices for legitimate owners of those devices once their service contract has been fulfilled
- notify customers when their devices are eligible to be unlocked and/or automatically unlock those devices for free
- unlock devices or provide an explanation of a denial of any unlock requests within two days
- unlock devices for military service men and women upon deployment
Apparently the CTIA and FCC are already in agreement on all of the above issues, except for point number 3. So it comes down to this: the CTIA is perfectly fine with unlocking mobile devices and is even okay with making the policy clear — they just don’t want to be forced to tell anyone and they don’t want to have to do it for free.
If you’re worried that Wheeler will concede and end up dismissing this particular key point, don’t be. The FCC Chairman’s letter makes it clear that they aren’t budging.
So when will the FCC act if the CTIA continues to avoid the issue of phone unlocking? Judging by the letter, they have until December. After that, it’s very possible that the FCC will look to other ways of bringing about changes to our current mobile device unlocking policy.
Enough time has passed, and it is now time for the industry to act voluntarily or for the FCC to regulate. Let's set a goal of including the full unlocking rights policy in the CTIA Consumer Code before the December holiday season.
Of course, even if you unlock your device without your carrier’s permission, it’s not like the FBI is going to come knocking at your door. So for most of us, cellphone unlocking is probably a non-issue.
The problem is that the guidelines on unlocking aren’t clear, and so less tech-savvy individuals are unlikely to even bother with unlocking their devices or switching carriers. Another issue is that you have to pay to unlock a device through your carrier, even if you already bought the device in full or carried out any contractual obligations.
What do you think, will the CTIA and FCC be able to reach an agreement in time for the holidays or is this an issue that will continue to drag on well into next year?