FCC, Telecom Carriers Near Deal on Phone Unlocking

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...

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