FCC: Wireless carriers must agree on phone unlocking rules

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.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer on

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.

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