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FCC, Telecom Carriers Near Deal on Phone Unlocking

FCC, Telecom Carriers Near Deal on Phone Unlocking
December 12, 2013 1:58PM

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Unlocking took a more prominent role this year because the Library of Congress ruled that unlocking was illegal in that it violated copyright laws, which that institution oversees. The Librarian of Congress said phones purchased after January 2013 would no longer be exempt from copyright law. The FCC, meanwhile, wanted to make it easier to unlock a phone.

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Mobile phone unlocking, once considered by phone companies as violations of their legal agreements, may soon become accepted by the industry. That's the word from the head of the Federal Communications Commission.

On Thursday, agency Chairman Tom Wheeler said major carriers and his agency have reached a voluntary agreement. The deal reportedly calls for providers to let customers know if and how their phones can be unlocked, such as through text messaging that information, and all unlocking requests would need to be accepted or denied by a carrier within two business days.

In November, Wheeler told carriers he hoped to have a policy in place prior to the holiday season, and he has indicated that regulations could be imposed if a voluntary agreement was not reached.

At the end of a contract, customers will possibly have an easier time getting a phone unlocked for use on the same or another carrier. Currently, the major carriers allow for unlocking, with varying degrees of support or ease of use.

Still on the Table

Some issues reportedly are still on the table. They include how to handle pre-paid phones, how to regulate the selling of unlocked phones, how support would be handled for a phone that did not successfully unlock, and the timing of the rollout.

Phone locking requires that a given phone to be used with a given carrier. From the carrier point of view, it cuts down on customer turnover and assures that the device being used is optimized for working on the carrier's network.

From the customer point of view, the inability to easily move between carriers is compensated, at least in part, by relatively inexpensive mobile phones whose actual hardware price has been heavily subsidized by that carrier. But the policy has also meant that customers are often subjected to long contracts with penalty clauses for early termination, and customers cannot readily take advantage of the rapidly changing, competing plans and technologies among carriers.

'Time to Legalize'

After years of hovering in the background of telecommunication policy issues, unlocking took a more prominent role this year because the Library of Congress ruled that unlocking was illegal in that it violated copyright laws, which that institution oversees. The Librarian of Congress said that phones purchased after January 2013 would no longer be exempt from violating the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The phone industry had been pushing for action to oppose unlocking, which it said ran counter to its agreements with consumers.

The resulting uproar drove an online petition that acquired 14,000 more signatures than the 100,000 required for a White House response.

In a posting on the White House blog, Senior Presidential Adviser for Internet, Innovation and Privacy R. David Edelman wrote the official response to the petition, entitled, "It's Time to Legalize Cell Phone Unlocking." In addition to backing the petition's position "that consumers should be able to unlock their phones without risking criminal or other penalties," he said the same principle should be applied to locked tablets.

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