Verizon snaps back at T-Mobile over phone unlocking

Verizon apparently doesn’t care too much if T-Mobile US acquires Ka’ena Corporation and its Mint Mobile and Ultra Mobile properties, but it does care about how Verizon’s handset unlocking policies are portrayed in public regulatory matters.

Last month, T-Mobile and Ka’ena representatives met with the FCC and presented them with a list of arguments why the deal, valued at up to $1.35 billion, should get approved. In the presentation, T-Mobile said its acquisition was a lot easier case than Verizon’s acquisition of TracFone Wireless, which closed in 2021. Both transactions involve acquiring an MVNO, or mobile virtual network operator.

T-Mobile’s presentation about Ka’ena included a reference to Verizon’s commitment to extend its 60-day unlocking period to all 700 MHz C-block devices purchased from TracFone and activated on its network.

But Verizon argues that handset unlocking was never an issue in the TracFone proceeding. “No commenter in that proceeding raised handset unlocking as a concern,” Verizon told the FCC in its July 11 filing.   

In fact, the matter only came up because Verizon, as a licensee of 700 MHz upper C-block frequencies, is subject to the commission’s “open platform” requirements applicable to that spectrum block, including a limited ability to lock handsets. “Verizon automatically unlocks handsets after 60 days, the most consumer-friendly arrangement in the industry,” the carrier stated.

It’s worth noting that Verizon secured approval from the FCC in 2019 to lock all new phones for 60 days after purchase to help fight identity theft and handset-related fraud. That's tied to the 700 MHz upper C-block licenses. After 60 days, Verizon automatically unlocks the phone, regardless of whether the device is fully paid off.

Regarding its acquisition of TracFone, Verizon extended its 60-day unlocking policy to TracFone and all of the brands associated with it, including Straight Talk Wireless, SafeLink Wireless and Simple Mobile. That was considered one of the public interest benefits of the transaction. TracFone previously had a 12-month handset locking policy.

“T-Mobile, like most other wireless carriers, has much more restrictive locking policies that limit consumers’ ability to switch carriers or devices,” Verizon told the commission. “It locks its postpaid customers’ handsets until the devices are fully paid – up to 24 months. Prepaid customers must wait 365 days after the device is activated on T-Mobile’s network and customers are limited to two device unlocks per twelve months. Metro by T-Mobile locks handsets for 180 days.”

According to Verizon, which linked to the unlocking policies of its rivals, Mint customers can request a device unlock only once per year and only after the device has been active on the network for 12 months. Ultra Mobile customers must request handset unlocking after their devices have been active on Ultra Mobile for at least 12 months.

“It is odd, then, for T-Mobile to draw attention to Verizon’s unlocking policies in support of its request for streamlined review of its transaction,” the carrier wrote. “If T-Mobile plans to commit to more pro-consumer unlocking policies similar to those that Verizon makes available to its customers in the hopes of receiving streamlined consideration, it should specify the details of such a commitment in a filing with the commission. Otherwise, Verizon’s pro-consumer unlocking policies are of no relevance to this transaction.”

According to T-Mobile's device unlock policy page, a postpaid device must be paid in full and have been active on the T-Mobile network for at least 40 days before it will unlock it. 

Unlocked promos

T-Mobile made a big deal out of phone unlock policies during its “Phone Freedom” un-carrier event in April, but most of its wrath was directed at AT&T. T-Mobile announced it would help AT&T customers leave that carrier by paying off their phones or contracts and accept trade-ins of locked devices.

Carriers’ unlock policies are of interest to people looking to switch, not only among the big carriers and MVNOs but the cable companies that are ramping up their mobile promotions. Today, Comcast marked its third annual “Break Free from the Big Three Day” spiel, where it says it will make switching easier for the one in five Americans looking for a new mobile provider.

Comcast’s Xfinity Mobile brand rides on the Verizon network but the company boasts “millions” of Wi-Fi hotspots throughout its footprint and says about 90% of Xfinity Mobile customers’ data is over Wi-Fi. Xfinity Mobile customers also need to be Xfinity internet customers.