White House Petitions FCC To Allow Phone Unlocking

Unlocking a cell phone, currently illegal, may become legal again. The Obama Administration has sent a petition to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requesting such an action, and there is support in Congress and at the FCC.

The petition, which came from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in the Commerce Department, asks the FCC to "require a provider of certain commercial mobile services, upon request, to unlock any wireless device" in order that the device owner "may use that device in conjunction with another lawfully obtained commercial mobile service."

The petition added that giving consumers greater freedom to choose among mobile service providers and use wireless devices that they acquire legally from other private owners would increase competition and "enhance consumer welfare."

In addition to the NTIA petition, a bipartisan bill has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to similarly change the law about unlocking phones, and it has received support from companies in the wireless industry.

Digital Millennium Copyright Act

Locking phones for use with specific carriers has been employed to make movement by customers between carriers harder to do, because it meant getting a new phone as well as signing up for a new service. Unlocking involves using a program to remove software blocks preventing the device from being used on a competing service. In some cases, however, unlocking a phone does not make it completely portable between carriers because of technical incompatibilities.

In January, a federal copyright office in the Library of Congress refused to renew an exemption for cell phones in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act after the exemption expired, thus making phone unlocking illegal and subject to civil and criminal penalties. The agency said the issue was that unlocking a phone required getting around copyrighted software in order to acquire the unlocking codes, and...

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