FCC to wireless industry: Figure out cellphone unlocking by the holidays


A shopper tries out the white iPhone 4 smartphone at an Apple Store in Shanghai, China, 28 April 2011. Apple Inc on Thursday (28 April 2011) put its latest white iPhone 4 on sale in 28 countries or regions worldwide. (Weng lei/WENG LEI - IMAGINECHINA)
November 15, 2013

The movement behind making it legal for users to unlock their cellphones got an extra boost this week when new Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler told the industry to stop dragging its feet.

On Thursday, Wheeler sent a letter to the wireless industry’s main trade group asking that wireless carriers set standards for unlocking cellphones, and fast.

“Enough time has passed, and it is now time for the industry to act voluntarily or for the FCC to regulate,” Wheeler wrote in a letter to Steve Largent, the chief executive and president of CTIA - The Wireless Association. “Let’s set a goal of including the full unlocking rights policy in the CTIA Consumer Code before the December holiday season.”

Unlocking a cellphone makes it possible for the phone to be used on multiple networks. The practice is currently illegal — a felony offense. The Library of Congress’s copyright office had granted an exemption that made it lawful to unlock a phone, but it let that exemption expire in January. After a petition was submitted to the White House’s “We the People” site, the Obama administration urged the FCC to step in to make the practice legal. That prompted a flurry of bills in Congress aimed at legalizing cellphone unlocking.

But, several months later, nothing has changed.

Wheeler noted that the FCC has laid out five points it would like to see addressed in the standards, including a clear explanation of the unlocking policy, a willingness from carriers to unlock devices for legitimate customers and device owners and notifications that let consumers know when their devices can be unlocked. The FCC would also like carriers to process unlocking requests, or explain denials, within two business days, and to unlock devices for military personnel upon deployment.

In a response to Wheeler’s letter, CTIA vice president of regulatory affairs Scott Bergmann said in a statement that the group looks forward to “continue discussions” under Wheeler’s leadership and that it supports a bill that would renew the copyright office’s exemption.

But Bergmann also noted that unlocking won’t necessarily make it possible for all cellphones to work on all networks.

“While CTIA supports giving consumers a robust set of options, it is important for consumers to note that an unlocked phone doesn’t necessarily mean an interoperable phone, given the technological and engineering realities of wireless networks,” he said.

Derek Khanna, of the National Campaign on Cellphone Unlocking, said Friday that while getting the CTIA to change its own rules is a big step forward, Congress still needs to act to fully resolve the issue. He referred to a bill by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) that would make unlocking permanently legal, rather than simply renewing the exemption.

“The problem underlying all this was created by Congress, and it can only be solved by Congress,” Khanna said. “They need to wake up. Everyone is in agreement on this issue. We know what the solution is, so let’s pass it.”

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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