In what some might deem an unprecedented move by five of the largest wireless carriers in the country, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon have committed to adopting a set of voluntary principles for unlocking cellular and smartphone devices.
Their announcement comes approximately ten and a half months after a We the People petition was created asking the Obama Administration to intervene in a decision by the Librarian of Congress that sought to exclude cell phone unlocking from the exceptions in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The authors of the petition claimed that the ability to unlock phones would help protect consumers from exorbitant fees paid for cellular roaming or purchasing a new cellular or smartphone device incident to a change in mobile carrier. More than 114,000 people signed on in support of the petition, and the White House responded by calling on the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Federal Communications Commission, Congress, and the telecommunications industry to come up with market and legislative fixes to the problem.
After much discussion within the companies and with their trade association, CTIA-The Wireless Association, the voluntary industry principles were created and are set to be included in CTIA’s Consumer Code for Wireless Service, a living policy that is updated regularly to reflect consumer needs and interests in our changing digital economy.
The principles, which are expected to be implemented within three and twelve months of their adoption, provide that, upon request, carriers will:
- Post on their websites a “clear, concise, and readily accessible policy on postpaid and prepaid mobile wireless device unlocking.”
- Unlock, or provide information on how to unlock, mobile devices for “customers and former customers in good standing, and individual owners of eligible devices after the fulfillment of the applicable postpaid service contract, device financing plan or payment of an applicable early termination fee.
- Unlock “prepaid mobile wireless devices no later than on year after initial activation, consistent with reasonable time, payment or usage requirements.”
- Notify consumers that their devices are eligible for unlocking at the appropriate time, or do so automatically, at no extra charge.
- Within two days of request, initiate the unlocking process or provide notice as to why unlocking cannot be accomplished.
- Unlock “mobile wireless devices for deployed military personnel who are customers in good standing upon provision of deployment papers.”
- “Reserve the right to decline an unlock request if they have a reasonable basis to believe the request is fraudulent or the device is stolen.”
While unlocking may provide consumers added benefits and promote new levels of competition between carriers, consumers should not assume that an unlocked phone is an interoperable phone. Mobile devices are created with the technical specifications of the originating network in mind, and once unlocked and transferred to another network, some of the specifications enjoyed on one network may not transfer to the other. For instance, “an unlocked device may support voice services by not data services when activated on a different network.”
In announcing the voluntary principles, Steve Largent, President and CEO of CTIA, explained that his organization and “these companies share the goal of ensuring that America’s wireless consumers continue to benefit from the world-leading range of competitive devices and offerings they currently enjoy, and believe that these voluntary principles will enhance these consumer benefits.”