A few months ago it became illegal for customers to unlock their cell phones without the assistance of their wireless carrier. That is to say, if you wanted to uncouple your phone and switch from say, AT&T to T-Mobile, you would first need to get permission from your current service provider. Unfortunately, obtaining such approval can be extremely time consuming and inconvenient. Plus, it's in your wireless carrier's best interest to keep you tethered to their service.
Presently customer advocacy groups are lobbying to change the law, but for the time being folks will have to jump through some hoops in order to unlock their phones from their current wireless carriers. We've detailed those requirements below, but first, let's explore why this complicated copyright law has become such a hot-button issue.
Tides Are Turning on a Controversial Law
In October of last year, the Library of Congress announced that it would no longer renew an exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that allowed consumers to unlock their cell phone without the carrier's permission. (See page 16.) By not renewing the exemption, the Library of Congress in effect left consumers vulnerable to civil and criminal penalties – including possible jail time — if they unlocked their phones.
A petition protesting the decision was started on the White House's official website, and last week the Obama Administration answered: "The White House agrees with the 114,000+ of you who believe that consumers should be able to unlock their cell phones without risking criminal or other penalties. In fact, we believe the same principle should also apply to tablets, which are increasingly similar to smartphones," read the statement from R. David Edelman, the Administration's Senior Advisor for Internet, Innovation, & Privacy. "And if you have paid for your mobile device, and aren't bound by a service agreement or other obligation, you should be able to use it on another network. It's common sense."
The FCC was quick to agree with the President, saying in a statement that the Library of Congress' decision "raises serious competition and innovation concerns." Subsequently several members of Congress announced that they would introduce legislation to legalize cell phone unlocking. "I intend to work in a bipartisan, bicameral fashion to restore users' ability to unlock their phones and provide them with the choice and freedom that we have all come to expect in the digital era," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), according to The Hill.
Why Do Carriers Lock Phones?
For their part, cell phone companies argue that locking phones is an essential part of their business model. As we've discussed before, carriers offer smartphones to customers at a reduced and subsidized rate. The customer typically covers the carrier's initial loss during the course of a pricey 2-year contract. Cell phone carriers argue that allowing customers to unlock their own phones will encourage them to switch carriers and undermine the subsidy model as a whole.
It's worth noting, too, that some of a phone's features are unavailable on other carriers once unlocked. "Sprint and Verizon simply reject unlocked CDMA devices. AT&T and T-Mobile use different frequencies which have, so far, meant each carrier's 3G phones often become 2G on the other network," read a blog for PC Magazine. "Smaller carriers' frequencies and technologies often aren't compatible with the larger ones. Almost everyone uses different LTE bands from each other, which means each carrier's 4G phones may not work as 4G on other carriers, unlocked or not."
Unlocking Your Phone the Legal Way
Under the current law, the only way to unlock a cell phone is to request it be done by your carrier. But this isn't as simple as it sounds. According to the support sites for AT&T and T-Mobile, there are several requirements customers meet before the carrier will unlock any phone:
- You must have (or have had) an account with the carrier, and the account must be in good standing. Current customers must have an active account for 40 to 60 consecutive days.
- You can't unlock a phone if it's still under contract, or been reported lost or stolen.
- If you purchased your phone at full price, you need to prove it. T-Mobile specifically states that you must fax them the proof of purchase.
- If you're a deployed member of the military, you can unlock your phone if you can prove you've been deployed. However, T-mobile won't unlock a service member's phone until after the "Buyer's Remorse period" has lapsed.
- There's a limit to the number of phone unlocks you can get. AT&T allows five unlocks per account per year for active customers; former customers get five unlocks, period.
If you meet all of the requirements, the next step is to contact customer service (AT&T requires you to submit a specific form). If your request is approved, T-Mobile will provide you with a numeric SIM Subsidy unlock code that you can then enter on your device. AT&T will unlock your phone for you, although it can take five to seven days to complete. Also, if either carrier cannot get the phone's unlock code from the manufacturer, you're out of luck.
"While we think the Librarian's careful decision was reasonable, the fact is that it has very little impact on AT&T customers," AT&T said in a post on its Public Policy Blog. The blog went on to call the carrier's unlocking policy "pretty straightforward," concluding that "the Librarian's ruling will not negatively impact any of AT&T's customers."
While we can think of a few AT&T customers who would argue that they have been negatively affected by the current legislation, what do you think, readers? Given the list of requirements above, do you think that current unlocking policies are "pretty straightforward?" Or do you agree with the White House and Congress, and think that consumers should be able to unlock their own phones? Have you had to ask your carrier to unlock your phone? Sound off in the comments below.