CTIA and FCC come to an agreement on mobile device unlocking policies

by: Andrew GrushDecember 12, 2013

Back in mid-November we reported that the FCC’s Chairman Tom Wheeler was putting additional pressure on the CTIA to make policy changes that would make mobile device unlocking policies much clearer. At the time, Wheeler said he hoped to have something worked out before the December holiday season.

So where are we at with everything? As of today, the FCC and CTIA have reached an agreement — at least with the five largest U.S. Carriers: Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and US Cellular.

A set of six rules have been agreed upon between the carriers and the FCC. These rules apply to both smartphones and tablets, and are as follows:

  • 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.

As you can see, the biggest change here is that carrier’s policies are going to be much more transparent than ever before. Is the new system perfect? No, though it is certainly a step in the right direction.

There’s quite a few positive changes here. It’s nice to see that carriers are expected to respond to requests for unlocking in as little as two days and that they will either unlock your device automatically or at least give you notice when your device becomes eligible for unlocking.

In my humble opinion, the biggest downside to the new policy changes is that you still have to wait up to a year to unlock a prepaid device from a major carrier, that and the fact that there smaller regional carriers and MVNOs that didn’t agree to these rulings. This means that these same policies aren’t necessarily going to be enforced among the tinier regional carriers in the U.S.

Despite the few weaknesses in the new rules, it’s still great to finally see some progress in an issue that really does matter to many mobile device users.

Unfortunately there is one major catch to these rules: the carriers have up to 12 months to act. Although some carriers might make the changes reasonably quickly, we wouldn’t be surprised if at least a few of them end up waiting until the tail end of 2014 before implementing the above policy changes.

What do you think of the new cellphone unlocking rules? Are you satisfied with the upcoming changes or not?

  • Wezi427

    It’s good news, but not great.

  • chuebner

    Utterly useless. One of the main reasons to unlock a phone is to be able to take it to foreign countries and use local SIMs there. This ‘regulation’ does not resolve the issue.

    Even if the device is unlocked I am still under contract, so what’s the reason for them not to unlock a phone? Simple, they want users to pay hundreds of dollars for their overpriced ‘worldwide’ service instead of using a $10 local SIM.

    • Perry Kahai, Ph.D.

      You are absolutely right!

    • mjh49783ab

      I couldn’t agree with you more.

    • willemco

      Don’t really know what you re moaning about… Nobody forces you to get that phone for ‘free’. The contract is clear. Your phone is LOCKED into their system. Don’t like it? BUY that phone and BE free.

  • Perry Kahai, Ph.D.

    Not really. Prepaid subscribers have to wait a year? I wonder what the justification is for this. I, for one, purchased an AT&T S4 at full price and should be able to unlock it on the day I buy the phone at retail price. The new agreement does not reflect this option.
    The problem is that phone manufacturers generally do not provide an unlocked model similar to the one sold by carriers. Case in point – Samsung Galaxy Note 3. AT&T’s phone works, among other bands, in the 700 MHz band. The available unlocked LTE version does not work in the 700 MHz band. Why should that be the case? Why shouldn’t I be able to purchase an unlocked model similar to the one sold by AT&T and, if I wanted, use it on AT&T’s network as a prepaid subscriber? It seems like carriers want to have a lock (pun intended!) on the phones they sell so that customers who want to use their service (prepaid or postpaid) HAVE to buy the phone from them for full functionality.
    As subsidies on the phones are phased out, carriers should not be able to dictate to customers where they buy their phones. Further, they should sell full-price-paying customers unlocked phones or provide unlock codes for them. And, finally, phone manufacturers should follow Apple’s example (the iPhone 5s) and make phones that can work on multiple carriers’ networks.
    The agreement ratified between carriers and the FCC is, in some instances, worse that what carriers are currently doing. Why the parties regressed to a situation worse than the one that currently exists makes little sense.

    • mjh49783ab

      In my view, if you’re paying full retail price for the phone, it shouln’t even be locked in the first place. There simply is no justification to even lock it, period.

  • MadCowOnAStick

    Ugh, just buy unlocked :P problem solved plus it’s cheaper long term

    • Shark Bait

      Exactly! Its cheaper , more flexible , and just better.
      You wouldn’t put your ISP in charge of your laptop would you!?

      • JL


  • endy

    utter and total bullsh&t.

    dont ever buy a locked phone again.

  • Jack Reacher

    So much for “We the People”….we need a new US Constitution that starts
    “We the Multi-National Corporations”…. So now I fully purchase a new
    cellular device (commencing within one year from this agreement on 13
    December 2013), and one year later, when it’s time to get the next year’s
    supported model the carrier volunteers to unlock the
    sim card and bootloader, so I can remove and delete privacy invasive
    software….No thank you. I’m really tired of the carriers and device
    OEMs invading my privacy more than NSA, all for their financial gain.
    This “change” really doesn’t say much for what the Administration and
    our Congress think of the rights of “We the People”. I don’t have much
    to hide, but I do still prefer to wear clothes and to protect myself
    from identity theft, since both are my privacy responsibility under current laws
    of this nation. BTW…My Google Nexus devices were abandoned from support by Google 14 and 15 months after I purchased them directly from Google. These policies are just greed by Our government and suppliers, who really don’t care about their “customers”.

  • Roddisq

    In many countries is against the law to lock cell phones…if you have a long term plan with discount on the phone, just charge a fee (cost the phone less months on the plan??) if the user wants to end the contract before the end…is it too hard?

  • Tananbob

    Man… I just want to jailbreak my iPad again. It’s legal to jailbreak an iPhone or iPod, but not an iPad…………. Stupid. I might jailbreak anyway.