Sprint, T-Mobile not meeting all cell phone unlocking policy commitments, advocate says

Last week the largest U.S. wireless carriers agreed to let customers who have fulfilled their contracts unlock their phones and tablets and move to another carrier. Yet according to the consumer advocate who spurred the movement to change unlocking policies, Sprint (NYSE: S) and T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) in particular are not fully meeting their six commitments under the new policy.

Sprint is failing to meet three of the conditions, T-Mobile is not meeting two of them and possibly a third, while AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T) meets five of the six and Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ) is meeting all of them, according to a report from OpenSignal co-founder Sina Khanifar, who is credited with starting a White House petition to make cell phone unlocking legal.

The new policy came into effect last week as part of an agreement between the CTIA and FCC. Under the new rules, carriers must clearly explain their policies on unlocking. Once postpaid customers finish their service contracts on postpaid plans, carriers must--upon request--unlock customers' phones within two business days. In terms of prepaid phones, carriers, upon request, must unlock prepaid phones no later than one year after activation. Carriers can also charge non-customers a "reasonable" fee to unlock phones.

The FCC notes that carriers must notify postpaid customers when their devices are eligible for unlocking, but prepaid customers must only be told at the time they purchase their phone. Carriers must also unlock the phones of military personnel who are deployed.

The CTIA's "Consumer Code" that carriers signed up for does not include "a commitment from carriers to accept unlocked devices on their networks," leading to varying policies, Khanifar wrote, according to Ars Technica.

According to Khanifar, Sprint does not have a clear and concise policy, does not have a lenient postpaid policy and is not fulfilling its commitment to military personnel. Khanifar said Sprint's unlocking policy "can't be described as 'clear, concise and accessible.'" He wrote that the policy for prepaid devices "is hidden two links away at this URL."

Additionally, "Sprint says that they will only perform an 'International SIM unlock' for active customers," he wrote. "There appears to be no provision for unlocking phones for international use if you are not an active Sprint customer, which is one of the requirements of the CTIA's 'Consumer Code.' Furthermore, they place restrictions on the number of devices you can unlock: for example, consumers don't qualify for an 'international' unlock if they've unlocked a different phone in the past 12 months." The CTIA consumer code requires carriers to unlock devices for both current and former customers, Ars Technica notes.

Khanifar said Sprint is falling down on its commitment to those in the military. "Specifically, it refuses phone unlocking for any personnel who has 'previously unlocked another device within the past 12 months,'" he wrote. "That's well outside the voluntary guidelines of CTIA's Consumer Code. What happens if a user's phone or tablet is damaged or breaks while deployed?"

In a statement to FierceWireless, Sprint said that as of Feb. 11 it "implemented all six of the principles contained in the CTIA unlocking agreement, and we appreciate the FCC's recognition that the country's major providers have met their commitment. Sprint has no comment on third party assessments regarding Sprint's adherence to the voluntary CTIA unlocking commitment."

T-Mobile is falling short on its postpaid and prepaid policy, according to Khanifar. For postpaid phones, T-Mobile "prevent[s] consumers from unlocking more than 2 devices per line of service in a 12 month period. They also require devices on their monthly plans to have been active for at least 40 days, even if the contract expires after a month under T-Mobile's Un-carrier policies and all dues have been paid." On prepaid, T-Mobile says, "The account must not be canceled and in good standing."

As for notifications T-Mobile needs to give customers, Khanifar wrote that "T-Mobile doesn't indicate whether they'll notify prepaid or postpaid customers of their unlock eligibility."

T-Mobile discounted Khanifar's claims and said it is notifying customers. "We implemented a solution in January of this year that will notify customers that have a device that becomes eligible to be unlocked--they will see a line item on their wireless bill notifying them of status," a T-Mobile spokesperson told FierceWireless.

T-Mobile claims it is in compliance with all of the unlocking principles. "T-Mobile worked hard to get an industry agreement on unlocking and our unlocking policy met with the CTIA requirements in advance of the deadline," the spokesperson said. "We think unlocking is something customers should be able to do and our vision is to radically simplify this process. T-Mobile was the first major U.S. wireless provider to bring an on-device Device Unlock app to market, making it easy for qualifying customers to unlock their eligible device. In addition, we have been championing the bring your own device concept in wireless for several years now."

AT&T is making good on five of the six principles, but it isn't clear whether the carrier provides eligibility notifications to prepaid customers, according to Khanifar. "We were unable to find any information about whether AT&T has implemented any notification system to let prepaid customers know of their unlocking eligibility," Khanifar wrote. "We spoke to two customer service representatives who gave me conflicting accounts of how notifications might be delivered, and the official unlocking website was unclear."

An AT&T spokeswoman told FierceWireless the company is in compliance with the unlocking standards announced by the CTIA, including providing prepaid customers notice of when their devices are eligible for unlocking.    

"The notification commitment for prepaid customers states that, 'Notice to prepaid customers may occur at point of sale, at the time of eligibility, or through a clear and concise statement of the policy on the carrier's website,'" the spokeswoman said. "AT&T implemented the latter of these options, and notification may be found here: https://www.att.com/deviceunlock/."

Verizon came in for praise in Khanifar's analysis. "Verizon has the most lenient policy: they've almost entirely stopped locking their devices," he wrote. However, it's not totally rosy. "Their Bring Your Own Device" program makes it clear that your phone needs to be an 'unused Verizon phone' to be eligible," he wrote.

For more:
- see this Ars Technica article
- see this Computerworld article
- see this VentureBeat article

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Article updated Feb. 18 at 3:25 p.m. ET with a statement from AT&T. 

Correction, Feb. 20, 2015: Sprint says it implemented the unlocking principles as of Feb. 11, 2015.