CTIA, Five Largest Carriers Agree to Let Consumers Unlock Devices

AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon Wireless have volunteered to let consumers unlock devices no longer under contract.

Unlocking a smartphone, even a paid-off smartphone no longer tied to a carrier contract, became illegal on Jan. 26 of this year, due to phrasing in the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It has not been a popular ruling, and on Dec. 12 the wireless industry moved to undo it.

Industry group CTIA said in a Dec. 12 letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon Wireless—the nation's five largest carriers—have committed to five voluntary industry principles to allow consumers to unlock eligible smartphones and tablets.

"CTIA and these companies share the goal of ensuring that America's wireless consumers continue to benefit from the world-leading range of competitive devices and offerings they currently enjoy, and believe that these voluntary principles will enhance these consumer benefits," Steve Largent, CTIA president and CEO, said in the letter.

The carriers will also recommend that the principles be included in the CTIA Consumer Code for Wireless Service (known as the "Consumer Code"), and upon adoption, the carriers will move quickly to implement them, putting at least three into effect within three months and the remainder within 12 months.

The five principles are:

1. Disclosure. Each carrier will post on its site, in clear language, its policy on unlocking prepaid and postpaid devices.

2. Postpaid Unlocking Policy. Upon request, carriers will unlock devices or provide necessary information enabling customers to, given that the device is no longer tied to a contract, device financing plan or application of an early termination fee, and the customer's account is in good standing.

3. Prepaid Unlocking Policy. Carriers, upon request, will unlock prepaid devices no later than one year after the initial activation, "consistent with reasonable time, payment or usage requirements."

4. Notice. When a device becomes eligible to be unlocked, carriers will clearly notify customers of this or automatically unlock the devices remotely, without an additional fee. Carriers can, however, charge non-customers (former customers) a "reasonable fee" for unlocking a device. Prepaid customers will be offered notice at the point of sale, at the time the phone becomes eligible to be unlocked or in a clear, concise statement on the carrier's Website.