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Major US Carriers and the FCC Agree to New Device-Unlocking Rules

Austin Bonner

24 December 2013
CTIA, the largest trade association of wireless carriers in the United States, announced in December that the nation’s largest carriers – AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, US Cellular and Verizon – have each committed to adopt a set of six voluntary industry principles regarding unlocking.  The standards, which CTIA and the signatories have recommended be added to the CTIA Consumer Code for Wireless Service, are: (1) disclosure of unlocking policies; (2) unlocking post-paid phones at the end of the applicable contract or financing plan, or upon payment of an early termination fee; (3) unlocking prepaid phones no later than one year after initial activation; (4) notice of unlocking eligibility; (5) responses to unlocking requests within two business days; and (6) unlocking at any time for deployed military personnel.
Major US Carriers and the FCC Agree to New Device-Unlocking Rules

Many carriers “lock” the devices they sell, particularly those that are subsidized in exchange for a contract commitment, making consumers unable to take their phones to a new carrier.  Many wireless service providers have long allowed subscribers to unlock their devices at the end of their contract terms.  But a Library of Congress decision earlier this year that effectively made it illegal for consumers to unlock their phones without the carrier’s permission sparked public interest in the issue, including a “We the People” petition with more than 100,000 signatures that received a response from the White House.

CTIA’s announcement follows months of negotiations with the Federal Communications Commission and comes at a time when many national regulators are focused on the issue.  For example, Canada’s new Wireless Code contains an unlocking mandate.  In November, the newly installed FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler, acknowledged that the carriers and the FCC had agreed in principle on most unlocking questions, but had not resolved issues around notification to consumers that they were eligible for unlocking.  Without that provision, the Chairman wrote, “any voluntary program would be a hollow shell.”

As part of their voluntary commitment, the carriers have agreed to implement half of these standards in three months and all of them within one year.  The FCC will retain oversight of that implementation process.

FCC Chairman Wheeler and Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel praised the agreement, while Commissioner Ajit Pai called it a “half-step forward” that does not “resolve the fundamental problem with federal law.”  Meanwhile, the White House called for Congress to pass the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, which would reverse the Library of Congress’s decision and allow consumers to unlock their own devices.

As reported by Chloe Albanesius in PC Magazine, consumer activists and entrepreneurs have already begun agitating for passage of the bill – a move CTIA says it supports.

Austin Bonner

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