T-Mobile, Ting respond to rules requiring carrier approval to unlock phones

If U.S. mobile customers want to unlock their handset and bring it to another carrier, they now need express permission from their current carrier to do so, according to a government ruling that went into effect Saturday.

The ruling, from the Library of Congress, concerns the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and was issued last October. In effect, the Library of Congress, which governs copyright law, said that there is no copyright exemption for unlocking cellphones, making unauthorized unlocking potentially illegal. What does that mean in practice though?

"What's happening is not that the Copyright Office is declaring unlocking to be illegal, but rather that they're taking away a shield that unlockers could use in court if they get sued," Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Mitch Stoltz told Engadget.

T-Mobile USA, which is moving away this year form plans with devices subsidies, has more than one million unlocked GSM iPhones on its network. The carrier said in a statement to TMoNews that it "recommends customers contact the device manufacturer or AT&T (NYSE:T) directly to request the unlock code for their device. Customers would then purchase a SIM card, select a T-Mobile SIM card only Value plan that suits their needs and T-Mobile will help the customer configure their device for its network. T-Mobile offers step-by-step instructions at retail and on the T-Mobile customer support forums online."

Ting, a Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) MVNO that supports unlocked phones, also weighed in.

"What does that mean for Ting customers?" wrote Ting's Andrew Moore-Crispin on the company's blog. "The short answer is nothing, really. It's up to carriers to decide whether they want to use this new law as leverage. We don't and won't. Given that we don't (and again won't) deal in contracts or lock phones to Ting, we have no need to."

Ting also pointed out that its bring-your-own-device service relies on Sprint phones, which will not be affected "because Sprint is enlightened enough and committed enough to its MVNOs to help us initiate the program. It's clear that they are comfortable with what we are doing."

CTIA has pushed for the new rules, in part because it protects wireless carriers that pay to subsidize handsets in exchange for customers agreeing to two-year contracts. "According to the Librarian of Congress, who agreed with CTIA, the exemption for unlocking was not necessary because 'the largest nationwide carriers have liberal, publicly available unlocking policies,' and because unlocked phones are 'freely available from third party providers--many at low prices,'" CTIA wrote in a blog post.

Many unlocked devices in the United States are sold unsubsidized by handset makers and retailers, and are often hundreds of dollars more expensive than subsidized versions. Some carriers offer unlocked phones and can unlock phones if customers request it. 

For more:
- see this NYT article
- see this Engadget article
- see this CTIA post
- see this TMoNews article
- see this Ting post

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