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The FCC wants mobile carriers to unlock every smartphone within 60 days of activation

The agency argues that the new unlocking rules would help consumers more easily switch carriers, cut down on switching costs, and reduce confusion among customers.
Written by Lance Whitney, Contributor
Phone Sim Card
Image: Maria Diaz / ZDNet

If you've ever struggled to get your smartphone unlocked, then you should appreciate the FCC's latest initiative. On Thursday, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel proposed that the agency require mobile carriers to unlock all phones within 60 days of activation. The goal would be to ease confusion among customers by applying the same unlocking rules across the board.

Unlocking a phone has become an often needed but frustrating task for smartphone users. Maybe you want to unlock a phone because you plan to switch to a different carrier. Maybe you need it unlocked because you want to sell it or donate it. Or maybe you've just bought a new phone from a third-party and want to make sure it's unlocked so you can use it with your carrier.

I've bought and sold mobile phones through third parties, and ensuring that they're unlocked can be difficult. You typically have to contact the carrier or the seller, who may or may not be able to help. A requirement that all phones be unlocked at a certain point would help consumers and carriers alike.

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The new unlocking rules would give people the freedom to switch their existing phones to another carrier as long as it's compatible with the new network. The requirement would also increase competition by reducing the costs of switching from one carrier to another, according to the FCC.

"Real competition benefits from transparency and consistency," Rosenworcel said in a statement. "That is why we are proposing clear, nationwide mobile phone unlocking rules. When you buy a phone, you should have the freedom to decide when to change service to the carrier you want and not have the device you own stuck by practices that prevent you from making that choice."

The FCC plans to discuss the proposal and seek comments at an open meeting on July 18. The challenge for the agency lies in coming up with a clear and standard set of requirements for all mobile providers. 

There are several questions that must be answered before that can happen. Would the unlocking requirement apply to existing contracts or just future contracts? How would it work with the incentives and discounts offered by carriers for postpaid and prepaid service plans? Would the requirement benefit smaller carriers and resellers by increasing the number of phones available through third parties? The FCC has just a few weeks to figure this all out.

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