The U.S. is about to take a turn for the better with new unlocking terms

Anna Scantlin
Contributing Editor from  Kansas City, MO
| December 12, 2013

Whether a consumer has the right to take their device and move it to whatever carrier their heart desires (as long as your phone's radio system matches up with whatever carrier you've had your eye on) or not has long been debated here in the United States. And by "debated" I mean that nobody has really debated on whether they had the right or not; it was just the power of the consumer base, which may be strong in numbers, against the power of the largest carriers in the country, who happens to hold all of the power. When you have the largest carriers against you, you can pretty much assume it's a losing battle. That is, until somebody who holds some ground in the industry steps in and takes charge. As it seems, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler decided it was time to make a move for unlocking phones to become a much easier process.

As it stands right now, it's illegal to unlock your phone in the United States without permission from your carrier. Unfortunately, that's not the hurdle that makes people's stomach churn - how hard would it be to simply ask your carrier to unlock your out-of-contract phone and take it elsewhere? Surprisingly, it's pretty hard, as you're likely to endure strings of phone calls that can last entirely too long just to get to the person that might unlock your phone. They also might not - that's the kicker. Nobody wants to deal with that amount of stress just for a "maybe". You either should be able to, or you shouldn't. After all, at the point where you're out of contract and you own your phone, you should be able to do what you want with it. You paid for it - and you probably paid even more for it than you should have. It's not about losing business at this point, it's about making things right. 

So what exactly does this new unlocking agreement entail? Back in November, Wheeler sent in a letter to CTIA that strongly suggested they voluntarily come up with a set of simplified steps in order to make unlocking devices less intimidating and more clear than they were before. If not, the FCC would have to intervene and come up with the actions for them. Fortunately, the carriers (Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular) ended up agreeing on a universal set of rules that needed to be in order for unlocking devices. The six rules will be:

  • Disclosure: A clear, concise and readily available page on the carrier's website that outlines its policies regarding the unlocking of prepaid and postpaid devices.
  • Postpaid device unlocking: Carriers will either unlock the devices of customers and former customers or provide information on how to obtain an unlock after the consumer has completed his or her contract, financing plan or payment of an ETF.
  • Prepaid device unlocking: Carriers will unlock a prepaid device no later than one year after its initial activation.
  • Notice: When a customer's device becomes eligible for an unlock, the carriers will either notify the user of their device's eligibility or automatically unlock the product at no additional fee. Carriers can still charge non-customers and non-former customers for an unlock.
  • Response time: Within two days after a carrier receives an unlock request, it must either unlock the device, send a request to the OEM to begin the unlock process, deny the unlock request with an explanation of why it was denied or explain that it needs additional time to complete the unlock.
  • Deployed personnel unlocking: Carriers will unlock the hardware of deployed military personnel so long as they have an account in good standing and can show deployment papers.
  • So while these new changes will allow a much easier time unlocking a device, there are still stipulations that need to be in place in order to do so. It's pretty standard stuff that we're already used to: have your phone paid for, not be in contract, or have paid an early termination fee. And, yes, you still need to gain permission from your carrier. In a perfect world, that part would have been ommitted as it seemed to have been the biggest issue when it came to unlocking phones to begin with. I'm not saying it still should have been included. However, I will say that I am happy to see that it is taking a turn for the better and things are becoming easier; it did kind of suck knowing that everywhere else had the freedom to go wherever they want, whenever they wanted to. But we're heading in a good direction now. Hopefully things keep getting better from here.

    Readers, what are your feelings on this new action from U.S. carriers? Will you be unlocking your device when these effects take place (which is said to be rather soon)? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

    Images via CNet, iDownload Blog