Wireless companies cave to allow cellphone unlocking, but only on their terms

December 12, 2013

Say you're fed up with your current wireless carrier, and you want to switch. What's more, you'd like to take your mobile device with you. Thanks to a weird wrinkle in copyright law, if your phone was purchased after Jan. 26, 2013, you can't — it's against the law. This new rule against cellphone unlocking has led to a massive public outcry, and the nation's top telecom regulator has threatened to intervene.

But now the wireless industry seems to have dodged the regulatory bullet. Its biggest players have agreed on a set of principles that'll let you unlock your phone again, albeit on their terms. Here's what AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular have committed to:

  • They'll tell you when your phone is eligible for unlocking (this generally happens when you reach the end of your contract).
  • They'll do it within two days of your request, and if there's a delay, they'll tell you why.
  • If you're in the military and moving overseas, the carriers will unlock your phone for you when you show your deployment papers.
  • Having your phone unlocked won't cost you a thing.
  • If you're a prepaid customer, carriers will unlock your phone no later than a year after your device was activated, assuming everything else about your account checks out.
  • Carriers will post a "clear, concise and readily accessible policy" on unlocking on their Web sites.

 

All of the principles will be implemented within a year, according to the trade group CTIA.

For weeks, wireless carriers and the FCC were at odds over the first bullet point, though that seems to have been resolved. Activists who were behind a hugely successful White House petition on cellphone unlocking are welcoming the announcement. Everyone leaves happy, right?

Not exactly. While Thursday's agreement opens one way for consumers to unlock their phones without facing lawsuits or jail time (or having to buy a pre-unlocked phone at an unsubsidized price), it makes your carrier the sole gatekeeper for all unlocking requests. So if you're preparing to travel abroad and want to use your device on European networks, chances are your unlocking request will be turned down if you aren't already at the end of your contract.

In fact, cellphone unlocking is simply one of a series of issues that's weirdly held hostage by copyright law. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which was signed in 1998, contains provisions that make it illegal to break copy protection mechanisms. Cellphone unlocking appears to be covered under this law, though the Librarian of Congress has the authority to grant exceptions. And for some time, that's exactly what the LOC did. Since 2010, he also permitted jailbreaking — a process that allows consumers to run software not authorized by device vendors — though only for cellphones, not tablets. And the Librarian has granted several other exemptions.

But in 2012, the Librarian decided not to renew the exemption for cellphone unlocking, creating the current impasse.

"That is one powerful librarian," said FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel in her remarks announcing Thursday's new wireless principles.

So while wireless carriers may have relieved some of the regulatory pressure on them to let unlocking move forward, there's an underlying issue about reforming copyright law that can only be addressed by Congress.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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Andrea Peterson · December 12, 2013