iPhone Customers Can Unlock Device Once ATandT Contract Expires

Apple, after an iPhone owner visits an AT&T store or participates in a live chat with customer service, will unlock the device once the user's service contract expires.

AT&T iPhone owners now have a little more flexibility. Several sources have confirmed that Apple is now willingly unlocking iPhones that are past their two-year contract window. Previously, the only hope for using an AT&T iPhone on another network was to jailbreak the smartphone, which voided its warranty.

The Next Web confirmed the new policy in a chat session with an AT&T rep€”a simple way the unlocking process can be performed. The other way is to visit an AT&T store. Grant Paul, a San Francisco-based developer and hacker, additionally confirmed that it€™s Apple, not AT&T, doing the unlocking, which prompts new questions about the reason for the change.

€œAlso, it€™s definitely Apple doing the unlocks: AT&T customer support clearly said they are submitting these to Apple to unlock,€ Paul Tweeted April 8.

Unlocking the iPhone allows users who are traveling to pop in a SIM card for a local network and enjoy rates lower than the roaming fees charged by AT&T. At home, users can also switch to less-expensive, no-contract plans or sign up for a (less-expensive than AT&T) T-Mobile plan, though due to incompatibility issues, the iPhone can only run on its 2G network€”maybe worthwhile for someone doing little more than talking.

Verizon Wireless allows its iPhone to be unlocked 60 days into the contract, if the user€™s account is in good standing, while Sprint sells its iPhone unlocked.

In November 2011, Apple began selling unlocked, contract-free iPhone 4S units directly, shipping the GSM-compatible-only smartphones without a SIM card. Without the subsidy paid by AT&T€”the perk/incentive offered to consumers for agreeing to pay for two years of service€”the starting price jumps from $199 to $649 for the 16GB model. The 32GB iPhone 4S goes for $749 unlocked, and the 64GB model for $850.

Perhaps Apple€™s motivation is that unlocking out-of-contract iPhones frees them up to be sold on eBay, letting users make way for the iPhone 5. A March DigiTimes report said Apple€™s newest phone will launch in the second half of the year with support for 4G Long-Term Evolution (LTE) technology, which AT&T has been rolling out at a newly aggressive pace.

On April 8, Bryan-College Station, Texas, and Bloomington and Munci, Ind., went live. St. Louis; Naples, Fla.; Lafayette, Ind.; Baton Rouge and New Orleans, La.; Akron, Canton and Cleveland, Ohio; and Staten Island, N.Y., are coming soon.

As of January, the carrier covered 74 million consumers. By year€™s end, it plans to double that, with its deployment being complete by year-end 2013.

€œAT&T customers will continue to have access to fast 4G speeds even when they go outside of an LTE area. With other carriers, when you travel outside of their LTE coverage area, you€™re on a much slower 3G network,€ said AT&T spokesperson Steven Schwadron. €œWe have two 4G networks that work together for our customers€”LTE and HSPA+ [Evolved High-Speed Packet Access] with enhanced backhaul.€

Maybe AT&T and Apple suspect the high-speed network€”up to 10 times faster than 3G, according to Schwadron€”is enough to keep traveling customers, even with unlocked devices, from straying too far.