U.S. Mobile Phone Unlocking Bill Doesn't Deliver Instant Freedom

NEWS ANALYSIS: A new law that makes it legal for people to unlock their cell phones so they can move to another service provider will expand owners' options, but is no magic bullet.

Unlocked Cell Phones2

In a rare display of bipartisanship, the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate passed identical versions of a bill that overturns a ruling by the Librarian of Congress that made it illegal to unlock your cell phone.

The bill, S. 517, otherwise known as the "Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act" is pretty straightforward.

In fact, all the bill really does is eliminate the rule making by the librarian that found phone unlocking to be a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act as it regards circumvention of copyright protections. The bill also directs the Librarian to determine whether tablets and other similar devices are also covered by the new law.

The bill will now go to President Barack Obama for signing. Considering the congratulatory statement from the White House, we can assume the president will sign the bill.

The legislation did not do what some have feared and make bulk unlocking illegal, which would have complicated the practices of phone recyclers, including police departments and advocacy groups that provide free phones to abuse victims and others who need to call for help. An article provided by the office of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) explains some of the thinking of the Senate, when it started this particular ball rolling.

But just because phone unlocking is about to become legal again, that doesn't mean you can rush out and start unlocking everything. First, if you're under contract to your carrier for the phone you bought, then your carrier can keep the phone locked until you pay for it. While some carriers will still unlock your phone for you after you've had it for a while, they're not required to do this until you've paid for it.

The law also doesn't necessarily cover tablets, although it's clear from the language of the legislation that Congress wants to include them. The reason the situation regarding tablets is unclear is because the initial LOC rule making didn't specifically include them.

That's why the law specifically directs the Librarian to make the necessary determination, while also making it clear that this is what Congress wishes. You can assume that the Librarian will take note of the legislation and decide that it applies to tablets as well as phones.

Unfortunately, statements by both Congress and the White House make it clear that neither body really understands mobile technology. For example, the White House statement says that the new law will allow owners of phones to take them to whatever carrier they want, which of course they can't do.

The reason is that just because it may be legal to move a Verizon phone to T-Mobile, for example, that doesn't mean you can do it.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...