FCC: Wireless carriers must agree on phone unlocking rules

FCC: Wireless carriers must agree on phone unlocking rules

Summary: Unless U.S. wireless carriers voluntarily agree on the rights of consumers to unlock their phones, the FCC has stipulated it will make rules to enforce a general policy.


The FCC has told carriers that they must voluntarily agree on what rights consumers have in relation to unlocking their mobile devices, or the agency will make a ruling dictating policy instead.


According to Reuters, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has made the demand based on how carriers conduct their business around contracts. When a consumer signs up for a long-term contract in order to receive a mobile device for subsidized prices or for free, the phones are generally locked to a specific carrier -- and this is the issue at heart for the U.S. regulator.

It's easy enough to pop into a shop and have your phone unlocked for a price -- although thanks to a new law that came into effect in January, this is also now illegal in the United States -- but should it be a carrier's responsibility to automatically unlock the phone once a contract has expired -- or at least notify a consumer when the phone can be unlocked and used with other wireless providers?

A petition sent to the White House this year gathered over 100,000 signatures to change the law and make unlocking legal. At the time, senior advisor for Internet, Innovation, & Privacy R. David Edelman stated that the White House's stance is that "neither criminal law nor technological locks should prevent consumers from switching carriers when they are no longer bound by a service agreement or other obligation."

For the last eight months, the FCC and wireless trade group CTIA have been working on policies to address these issues. On Thursday, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler wrote to CTIA President Steve Largent, urging the industry to adopt new unlocking policies before the Christmas shopping season starts, saying:

"Enough time has passed, and it is now time for the industry to act voluntarily or for the FCC to regulate. Absent the consumer's right to be informed about eligibility, any voluntary program would be a hollow shell."

Wheeler says that carriers agree that consumers hold the right to unlock their devices once a contract ends, but do not notify their customers when their mobile device is eligible to be unlocked -- or do it automatically for them.

Speaking to the publication, CTIA's vice president for regulatory affairs, Scott Bergmann said the association would continue discussions with the FCC.

Topics: Mobility, Smartphones, Wi-Fi

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  • Um, so they will do it once the phone is paid for

    But, yes, you have to call and request that it be unlocked.

    Of course, few people do this as they keep trading up to the latest and greatest gadget of the day.

    Typical FCC. Lots of talk, little real results.

    I am amazed people still sign up for these expensive contract plans, but then again it is a free choice and alternatives exist.
    • What's also fun is that...

      you have to have the phone still tied to their network to unlock it. Or so Verizon has said about my old HTC Trophy. I can get it unlocked, but I have to have it attached to my account.
    • Very Excited for end of contract

      I vowed never to sign for a contract again. Some how my brother talked me into joining him on his Verizon account. I felt good paying $45 a month but felt nice since it was December 26th. Now stuck on a two year and the few times I've called in for phone issues, they try to sell something. Here are some alternatives
      Anti Fanboy
    • Actually, the FCC is insisting on consumer notification.

      According to ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/fcc-chairman-calls-wireless-carriers-unlock-cellphones/story?id=20902373, Tom Wheeler, Chairman of the FCC, in his letter to CTIA wrote "Absent the consumer's right to be informed about unlocking eligibility, any voluntary program would be a hollow shell,"
  • ...

    Bla bla bla money money money. I'm happy with the way Google is going. Getting a great unlocked phone for a reasonable price under $400, now that's justice. I wish more carriers took this route, but again, its all about the money honey.
  • My prior carrier ..

    ..Verizon was utterly shameless on this topic. I paid full retail for
    a phone, used it for a year, then called to ask if it was locked.
    Was told I could only use it out of the country with a different
    carrier, not in the US. This was an outright lie, as I learned by
    escalating the call to supervisor and spending a ridiculous
    amount of time on the phone with them.
  • I say....

    The phones should be automatically unlocked once one of two things happen:
    Your contract is up
    You have paid the early termination fee, even if you aren't canceling the account.

    There should be an option to have it unlocked without paying early termination fees if you are traveling internationally, etc.
  • Oh, PLEASE, carriers...

    ...DON'T come to an agreement.

    Anything the carriers come up with on their own will be designed to make it as inconvenient as possible.
    • That's what I thought.

      The FCC is asking telecoms to create regulations for themselves, which they then will feel free to ignore. Even a child could see that's a bad idea.

      Regulate them. That's your job. If you cannot or will not do it, then quit and make way for someone that will.
  • What happened to the old days...

    when the government assisted business by SETTING STANDARDS (as in NIST)?
    Methinks the FCC has lost its way among the corn (lobbying) maze.
  • When POTUS can cavalierly tell states to disobey federal law...

    As he just did relative to the ACA by telling states they can now "sell cancelled policies", why should we expect anything better from the rest of the executive branch?