Carriers Send FCC Six-Point Policy for Unlocking Mobile Phones

NEWS ANALYSIS: In a letter from the CTIA, the major U.S. wireless carriers would allow customers to have their phones unlocked once they meet contract requirements or have them paid for.

The major U.S. wireless carriers have committed to the Federal Communications Commission that they will begin allowing customers to have their phones unlocked on request, provided they meet certain criteria that mainly involve meeting financial obligations to the carrier.

For postpaid customers, this would mean either paying for the phone or meeting any contract requirements. For prepaid customers, it would probably mean having prepaid service for a year, unless they bought their phones outright.

As you might imagine, there's a lot more to it than that. The CTIA filed a six-point Consumer Code for Wireless Service on behalf of five of its members: Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and US Cellular.

Those five companies have committed to abiding by the standards that the CTIA gave to the FCC. According to a CTIA spokesperson, other carriers may join that group. "We welcome additional carriers to sign on to the principles and are pleased several have indicated interest in participating," the spokesperson told eWEEK in an email.

FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler welcomed the CTIA letter. "Today, we see the manifestation of what I call the 'see-saw rule'–the more the industry acts to meaningfully regulate itself, the less that has to be done by government," Wheeler said in a prepared statement. "I salute and commend the wireless industry for their leadership to reach a solution on cellphone unlocking. The voluntary industry agreement announced today [Dec. 12] caps nine months of hard work by mobile wireless providers and FCC Staff."

The commitment by the wireless industry is based on disclosure. In fact, the first of the six points in the voluntary agreement presented to the FCC by the CTIA is specifically about disclosure. The carriers agree to post their policy on unlocking on their Websites. The agreement also includes specific details for postpaid customers (they can't be under contract or on an installment plan) and prepaid customers (no more than a year after signing up).

Carriers also agreed that they would notify postpaid customers when they're eligible to have their phones unlocked and either automatically unlock them or provide unlocking information. Prepaid customers would get the details when they sign up. The carriers also agreed to a two-day response time for unlock requests.

Finally, the carriers agreed to unlock the devices of military personnel with deployment orders on request as long as they're in good standing and provide a copy of their orders.

The commitment delivered by the CTIA did not address the decision by the Librarian of Congress that unlocking a phone violates the law.

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...