Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular agree to new cell phone unlocking rules

The CTIA said five of the nation's largest U.S. wireless carriers agreed to simplify and standardize their policies on unlocking cell phones and tablets. However, it seems likely that it could be a year or longer before all of the procedures are fully in place.

Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ), AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T), Sprint (NYSE:S), T-Mobile US  (NYSE:TMUS) and U.S. Cellular (NYSE:USM) agreed to the principles, according to the CTIA. The CTIA and the carriers will recommend that six principles on unlocking devices be added into the CTIA's consumer code for wireless service. One adopted, other carriers are likely to follow suit.

Within three months of being adopted into the code, the carriers have committed to putting in place three of the six principles, and to implementing all six within 12 months of adoption. Importantly though, the CTIA did not indicate which three of the principles the carriers will implement the soonest.

CTIA spokeswoman Amy Storey told FierceWirelesss that "it will be up to the participating providers to determine the three out of the six they choose to execute within three months."

The announcement on unlocking comes shortly after the FCC said it would issue rules on cell phone unlocking if the industry didn't come to an agreement on the situation before the end of this year.

According to the CTIA, the six "principles" around cell phone unlocking are:

1. Disclosure: Carriers will clearly explain their policies on unlocking

2. Postpaid Unlocking Policy: Once customers finish their service contracts on postpaid plans, carriers will--upon request--unlock customers' phones.

3. Prepaid Unlocking Policy: Carriers, upon request, will unlock prepaid phones no later than one year after activation.

4. Notice: Carriers agree to notify customers when their phones are eligible for unlocking. Carriers can also charge non-customers a fee to unlock phones.

5. Response Time: Carriers will unlock phones within two business days.

6. Deployed Personnel Unlocking Policy: Carriers will unlock the phones of military who are deployed.

"Consumers win when they are armed with the right information and know their options, especially when it comes to navigating how to unlock a wireless phone after completing a contract," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a statement. "Today's commitment by wireless providers will provide consumers with more information about when, and how, to move their devices from one network to another compatible network, should they choose to do so. The FCC stands ready help consumers understand these new policies in partnership with industry. I expect that this agreement will be incorporated into CTIA's Code of Conduct for Wireless Providers, which serves as an important expression of the compact between industry and the public."     

Both the FCC and CTIA noted that an unlocked phone is not necessarily an interoperable phone. For instance, phones that work on AT&T Mobility's network are unlikely to work on Sprint's network since the two carriers use different technologies and spectrum bands.

The push for changing unlocking rules gained steam in March after the Obama administration said it supports consumers who want to unlock their mobile phones without fear of breaking the law. The administration urged legislative fixes to remedy a recent government ruling on the topic that removed protections for people who do unlock their phones. The White House's statement was prompted by a petition on the issue that received more than 114,000 signatures.

The ruling on unlocking, from the Library of Congress, concerns the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and was issued in October 2012. 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.

For more:
- see this CTIA release
- see this CTIA letter (PDF)
- see this WSJ article (sub. req.)

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