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

December 12, 2013
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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?

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