FCC and Wireless Carriers Reach Agreement on Cellphone Unlocking

After the Library of Congress declared that mobile phone unlocking is illegal by a consumer who owns the phone, a firestorm of protests resulted in a petition to the White House. That resulted in pressure on the FCC to take up the matter with the wireless carriers, and now an agreement has been reached that makes it easier for consumers to unlock their phones at the end of their contract.

The agreement, according to Reuters on Thursday, provides for:

  • Clear notification to customers about their eligibility to unlock their phones.
  • Requiring the carriers to process (or deny) the request within two days.

Customers have been allowed by the wireless carriers to unlock their phones before now, but it was often a difficult process and not widely understood. With this new agreement, the process is more formalized and better communicated to the customer.

Of course, the phone still has to be compatible with a newly selected carrier's network after unlocking. Previously, some older smartphones, like the iPhone 4s, were still tied to, say, either CDMA or GSM, even after unlocking. The recent introduction of more sophisticated radio hardware that has capabilities for all the radio bands used by the major carriers has eased the problem.

Also, there are still some details to work out, according to Reuters. "The final sticking points in reaching the agreement among carriers and FCC were said to include questions on how fast the new policy would be rolled out, how pre-paid phones would be handled and how to keep unlocked phones off of black markets."

The petition to the White House, in response to the Library of Congress ruling, required 100,000 signatures. It gathered 114,322.

The issue will be further discussed by the FCC at its meeting on December 12.

It appears now that with the carriers moving away from subsidies and the customers purchasing their own phones outright, the time is ripe for this easier facilitation and clarification of the customer's right to unlock a personally owned phone at the end of a contract and move to a new carrier.