UK and U.S. take separate steps to ease phone unlocking

Phone unlocking hit the headlines in recent days when President Obama signed a bill that would allow U.S. consumers to once again legally unlock their phones in order to be able to change their network operator and retain their device, as widely reported by U.S. media.

On the other side of the pond where phone unlocking is legal, UK regulator Ofcom has taken things a step further: It has actually published a guide that will help consumers unlock their phones more easily in future. This move forms part of Ofcom's wider programme to explore and address potential barriers to switching providers.

Phone locking has been a common tactic deployed by mobile operators to ensure that subscribers are tied to a network for the duration of their contract.

Now, some operators are moving away from phone locking altogether, as demonstrated by 3 UK, which has been selling unlocked phones since Dec. 1, 2013. Vodafone UK, on the other hand, has sold all phones locked since July 2013, according to Ofcom.

It's clearly something of a minefield: subscribers first have to determine the locking practice of their operator and then work out how to get their SIM unlocked. Even then the process is not straightforward: as Ofcom noted, some operators will only unlock a mobile phone after a certain period of time has passed and will charge a fee, while some will unlock a phone at any time for free.

According to Ofcom, charges can range from free at any time--for example O2 Pay Monthly customers and 3 UK customers--to up to £20.42 (€25.61/$34.38) with EE, Orange UK and T-Mobile UK. The time required to unlock can also vary considerably, from up to seven working days at 3 UK to up to 30 calendar days at Virgin Mobile. Indeed, MVNOs such as Virgin Mobile and Tesco Mobile seem to require longer to process unlocking requests.

Certainly such discrepancies, once revealed, could also be another factor in the decision making process for selecting a new mobile phone contract. As things stand, when it comes to unlocking in the UK, 3 UK wins hands down.

In the U.S., meanwhile, customers have only just won back the legal right to unlock their phones. But as the Verge points out, the debate there is far from over: all the bill did was restore a copyright exemption that allows customers to modify a phone's firmware. The Librarian of Congress has to decide every three years if this exemption should apply.

For more:
- see this Verge article
- see the Ofcom guide

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