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One of the several advantages of SIM technology is the ability to seamlessly swap out cell phones with like-banded phones.

For instance, if you got tired of your current phone one day and had another phone laying around, you could simply pop your SIM card in the other phone and start using it with your personal number. Or, say, you won a phone in our One-Paw Bandit game. Given the new phone is compatible with your network and accepts a SIM card, all you have to do is insert your SIM and keep on trucking.

But say you use T-Mobile and you won an AT&T smartphone in the game. Chances are, the phone is compatible with T-Mobile's 2G or 3G network. If you're lucky, you may also get HSPA+ out of the deal. The chances of the phone being "locked" to AT&T's network, however, are also pretty high.

All is not lost, though. All it takes to unlock said phone is some cash, a little know-how and a code specific to that device which will remove the software block and once again make the phone compatible with other network providers' SIM cards and wireless bands. In some instances, all it takes is a (relatively) quick call to the provider that originally sold the phone. Assuming the phone isn't stolen or still in contract, the carrier should be willing to provide the unlock code sans charge.

If you've taken to the former, DIY method, some recent news might not sit well with you. Michael Gowan of TechNewsDaily reported late yesterday evening that unlocking cell phones without the carrier's permission will be illegal as of this Saturday, January 26. In October, says Gowan, the Library of Congress concluded that unlocking cell phones would not be granted an exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and would no longer be legal. Those who still wanted to unlock their cell phones before the act was deemed illegal were given a 90-day window, which closes this Friday.

This may prove troublesome for T-Mobile and other carriers who openly allow customers to "bring your own device" (BYOD) and offer incentives to those who do.

It could also create a hurdle for those looking to take the prepaid plunge. Considering the prepaid device selections are still paltry and outdated in comparison to postpaid offerings, more and more U.S. wireless customers have taken their unlocked smartphones to a prepaid carrier to save significant chunks of change each month.

You may recall another controversial ruling around the DMCA for us mobile guys and gals. In July 2010, the Librarian of Congress ruled that rooting (Android) and jailbreaking (iOS) devices was legal under the DMCA. However, in October 2012, yet another change was made. It's legal to root and jailbreak smartphones, yet tablets are not covered in that exemption due to the lack of a solid definition (i.e.: an e-reader could be considered a tablet, as could a laptop, in a weird sort of way). But I digress …

You might be thinking, "I bought my smartphone, I should have free reign to do as I please with it! If jailbreaking/rooting is legal, why isn't unlocking?" But jailbreaking, rooting and unlocking are all vastly different in nature. There is much more at play here than just the hardware, software and networks involved.

Most U.S. wireless subscribers adhere to the subsidized lifestyle, which means they sign a contractual agreement – likely two years – and can purchase the phone at a significantly lower price ($20 to 300 versus $400 to $800). It also means a very small demographic is actually affected by this change to the DMCA.

Unlocking cell phones isn't totally off the table. After Saturday, to legally unlock your phone, you will simply have to ask the carrier first. In my experience, both as a wireless sales associate and as a subscriber, carriers don't mind unlocking a new phone after three or four months into the agreement. And if you fight your case, you can expedite that with relative ease, especially if you have an overseas trip planned.

The larger part of the issue is the agreement, the contract which binds you, the consumer, to the carrier. It has little to do with the device itself and more to do with you paying your bill each month for 24 consecutive months. Once that term is over and the devices/lines are out of contract, having a particular device unlocked by the carrier is relatively simple. And if you were to breach that contract and go to another provider with similar technology, it wouldn't be terribly difficult to convince the carrier to unlock those phones, so long as you pay your ETFs and any outstanding dues.

Not to mention, many phones are coming unlocked these days. Take the Verizon iPhone 5, for example. A phone that would have previously shipped locked down like Fort Knox came totally unlocked to the surprise of many. Simply pop an AT&T SIM card in the Verizon iPhone 5 and you have AT&T service (no LTE, unfortunately). The HTC DROID DNA on Verizon has a similar trick up its sleeve.

But let's put that aside for a moment and focus on the elephant in the room, LTE. The 4G standard that wireless providers around the globe are moving towards is LTE. Many of they U.S. providers' LTE bands overlap; AT&T and Verizon both use the 700MHz band for their LTE networks, yet you cannot simply use a Verizon LTE device on AT&T LTE. Sascha Segan of PC Mag explains:

"Verizon and AT&T both run their LTE networks in the 700-MHz band. But Verizon's network is mostly in 746-787MHz, while AT&T's will be primarily in 704-746MHz. Some Verizon and AT&T spectrum overlaps in an area called the "lower B block," but not much. Verizon could build its phones to exclude AT&T's frequencies, and vice versa."

What this means is, if you care anything about LTE, unlocked phones aren't going to matter to you moving forward. This is exactly why it isn't likely that we'll see a LTE-compatible Nexus smartphone (in an official capacity) from Google without specific carrier branding.

The only people this truly affects are those who swap devices often, BYOD prepaid customers seeking better devices or those who purchase used smartphones and unlock them unofficially, particularly iPhone users, as iPhones purchase with a contract are an entirely different story. But, like I said, there is no shortage of smartphones that come unlocked from the factory these days. The Nexus 4 from Google is a prime example, as is the iPhone 5 through Verizon or DROID DNA. And lest we forget about international devices.

While some may be adverse to the ruling, this change that goes into effect this Saturday is not cause for alarm for the vast majority of wireless users, even those who like or need to unlock smartphones. Still, I can't say I agree with the ruling. As long as you're out of contract, you should have the ability to unlock your smartphone as you please.

Where do you stand on the matter, ladies and gents? Should you have to get permission from your carrier to unlock your smartphone? Or should you have free reign to unlock your smartphone at will?


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102 Reactions to this post

"Should unlocking your cell phone be illegal?"


Please limit your reaction to 140 characters or use comments for a longer reply :)
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John Montiel So basically you have to either buy your phone at full price to unlock it or complete your two year contract to unlock it without it being illegal. This is my understanding
Anonymous Haha defiantly free world right? Good thing i unlocked my HTC Butterfly before this happened!
Rafael Almonte Should unlocking MY cellphone be illegal? Hummm, let's see: it's my cellphone, I paid for it, I'm responsible for the contract even after I take my business elsewhere, I shouldn't need to buy another phone if I travel and what else..... Oh, yeah, suck my balls phone companies. Can we set up a formal complaint?
Eugene Yap No...i paid for the phone...pple hv no right to control me...my property
Steffanie Rae Liebman Right! You pay (or go under contract for) over $600.00 for a phone & YOU shouldn't be able to do whatever you want with it??!!!!
Roscoe Adams NO!! I paid for it and it you suck I should be about to take my phone and leave!! Plus A lot of service providers are looking into no longer offering phone subsidies, So you'll pay $600 and Can't leave!?!?
K.j. Littlejohn Nope¡¡¡
Gordon Christie no its an by greedy carriers made so you have to buy their phones next sim free phones will be banned too
Arpit Gohil no acc to me
Sam Rick Of course not.I paid for the damn thing so I can do whatever the hell I want with it.
Curtis Owens HELL NO!!!
Jannis Anderson No... Google nexus
Chester Candelaria @trieu dude compare the 700 full retail price for a 24 mos monthly bill? and you have the right to unlock your phone coz your paying the monthly bills
Alexander Dewitt No, you can adapt as you go along and gives people freedom.
Steve Johns No its just making the device better :)
Steven Pereira What kind of thing to ask? I'd love to see you ask a real or substantial question.
Anthony Gonzalez @Trieu only bound by there service as in calling and data and length of contract if one is present,not having anything to do with the phone itself!
Anthony Gonzalez Why would it be illegal? It yours for either paying in full or discounted for signing a contract either way its ur to do as you please! This post is just dumb!!!
Brandon Holley Dude you went full retard......NEVER go full retard....
Trieu Tran Remember, you guys have no right to complain when you're only pay 200 dollars upfront for a 700 dollar device. Sure you can do whatever you want if you buy it at full retail price, otherwise you're bound to their service for the length of the contract.
Tim Davis No. It's my hardware, and I should be able to unlock it.
Dee Motto Love No it yours u bought it
Jose Pablo Islas um... yea, so should modifying your computer, tv, car, sound system, house, or anything else you own.
Malik Valbrun No not at all, should just void warranty at most.
Shannon Rae Beauford I paid 700 for my phone. I should be able to do with it as I please.
Mark Fisher Jr. Hell naw!!!!
Roger DeOliveira I work for a carrier and I think it's idiotic... Is not our phone it's yours
Jacky Chen I'm from Singapore and the phone that are sold are all unlock why can't the us carrier do the same?
Tony Lofu Stupid question is stupid.
Laura Judd No... Even if ur under contract ur paying ur bill who cares if the device is unlocked.
Chad Bolin Yes unless that device is out of contract then it would be fine.
James Norwood No but I use a Droid so I don't have to worry about any of that crap.
Javier Delgado Absolutely yes....but company give me the most expensive service with a price cut of 90% and the best device... And at the end of the contract they retrieve their device....-___-
Charles W. Y. Wong I bought it. I own it. I have the rights to do anything with it.
Marrion Bell heck no
Ever Alexander Iraheta Yes it should! You know what else should be illegal? Unlocking my fucking car....i swear to god this country should worry about bigger situations. SMFH
Aaron Couts nope I paid for it so I should be able to do whatever the heck I want to with it
Kev Baldwin No because you own the handset.
Seamon A. Kang I bought a mobile telecommunications device. I agreed to be under your contract for two years for your perhaps mediocre service. I decided to give you the benefit of the doubt if there was ever any. After I have completed your contract this device that I purchased with my hard earned money from two years ago is now in my possession. Please leave.
Susie Tracey I was going to say the same thing... what a stupid question! Of course we're going to say NO!
Jonathan Zurcher Govt. wants to make everything illegal.
Richard Mccarthy why in the world did you even post this? really?
Alfonso Manuel Avalos I think itbshould be to a certain extent like if rhe phone shows a bad imei yes is its clean and payed for go ahead and unlock it
Joel Valladares No, I pay for the phone its mine and I should do whatever I want to do with it, so I signed a contract that say I have to pay each month, if pay monthly that's means I'm following my contract in my case I travel so I need my phone unlocked so a can put any Sim card from the country where I am and avoid extra charge from my carrier.
Romero Newell This is bull
Phil Jackson Hell no Only in America! :/
Jaime Espinoza I payed for it. Its mine. I should be able to do what ever the hell i want with it
Derek Lombardi Illegal? Lets not get all stupid here. . Its my damn phone..
Dayan Inclán I wouldn't do it, but No, that's absurd
Dee Nazario I have a Nexus 4. Somebody put me in jail.
Dennis Orcutt Jr Absofrigginloutely NOT!
Kal El This is absolutely ludicrous!
Dan Daniel IF you pull full retain- NO if you signed a contract and thats part of Terms O f Service- yes
Anthony Evans Jr unn unlocking is nothing like customizing a pc..
Minh Nguyen Who going come after you if you illegally unlock your phone. Those unlocking sites from India will still be in business.
Andrew Lipps No because people need to travel
Tim Eller No, it's not different than customizing your pc the way u want it
Anthony Maddox Hell no!!! You pay for the phone its yours. Now a days you gotta pay full price cause phones come out so often.
Ray Kishi uh no
James Piimp Ronald We you own the product you can do what you wont.... Its like when apple when to cort to try to ban jailbrakeing....
Trinity Kolarova Hoodrich we don't have contracts its all prepaid bundles
Rick Wilson I don't think so. Since you pay for it. Now, if you rent the phone that is a totally different story
Reese Woodson No because if a person owns a phone that person should be able to do whatever they want with it!
Barry Chase If I was leasing it yes. Otherwise no.
Trinity Kolarova Hoodrich n I don't need icrap5
Anthony Evans Jr if you bought it under contract it should be till you fulfill the contract obligations be it the 2 years or the ETF.
Yau Quasar It should be illegal to make unlocking cellphones illegal :D
Trinity Kolarova Hoodrich doesn't apply in my area all phone is already unlocked ###
Chris Kang depends if you bought it subsidized or not, but it shouldnt be illegal, just do early termination fees smartly
Teejay Crooks No r u ppl crazy
Ashley Kirk if you pay for the phone you should be able to do what hell you dam well please with it its your money not theres
Ramiro Garcia The reason he asked this question is because it is going to become illegal this Saturday for the iPhone. Idk about androids.
DeAndre Ruffin No. It's YOUR phone. I unlock mine all the time.
Isaac Castillo No.I pay with money I earned I should do whatever I want with it
Rafael Be No! We pay for the phone, we should be able to do whatever we want to it.
Sky Baun stupid question
Peter Blanco NO. If unlocking is illegal then developing should be illegal, which better not ever happen.
Lewis Hachmeister Is that a real question?




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