The House of Representatives passed the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act last Friday, which will allow consumers more flexibility with their phones than they have had in the past two years. The bill, aimed at cell phone users who want to unlock their mobile phones, has made it all the way through Congress and is on its way to Obama’s desk. The president applauded both Houses for passing what he calls “pro-consumer” legislation, believing it will “allow ordinary Americans some flexibility in choosing a carrier that works for their budget and their needs.” The bill is aimed at allowing consumers to keep an existing phone as they move to new service providers without being forced into long-term contracts.
Before 2012, the Copyright Office granted short-term exemptions that legally allowed users to unlock mobile phones. The last exemption expired in 2012 and was not renewed. Consumer groups have been clamoring for this flexibility ever since, as the expired extensions made mobile phone unlocking illegal without a provider’s permission, even when service contracts have expired. More than 114 thousand people signed and sent a petition to the White House requesting the exemption be reinstated. If Obama approves the law, it will reinstate the exemption until the next Copyright Office review in 2016. Wireless carriers accepted this change last December, voluntarily striking an agreement with the Federal Communications Commission.
The Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act will allow consumers to unlock their phones without punishment. Currently, those who perform the action on their own can be prosecuted with sentences that may include time in prison. Earlier versions of the bill were held up by a “bulk unlocking” clause which impeded a user’s ability to unlock multiple phones. In the current bill, created by the Senate, the bulk unlocking clause was dropped. The version being sent to the president was unanimously agreed to by both Democrats and Republicans.
Many people are asking: “What does it mean that a phone is ‘locked’ or ‘unlocked?’ Simply put, most phone contracts for mobile phone services lock the device into the service provider that sells the phone, forcing consumers to buy a new phone if they want to switch carriers. If a phone is “unlocked,” it can be used with whichever provider the consumer prefers. Originally, locking was used as a marketing strategy to entice customers into long-term contracts in exchange for a “free phone.” Mobile phone service providers asked the cell phone manufacturers to design the phones to lock into only their network, rendering the devices useless if the consumer changed providers. Alternate terms for this are called the Sim Lock, SPC Lock or Sub Lock.
All kinds of mobile phones can be unlocked, however the process differs between different types, such as those that use subscriber identity module (SIM) cards or those that do not (usually called a CDMA phone). Unlocked phones will recognize a SIM card from any service provider. For example if a T Mobile or an AT&T SIM card are inserted into that unlocked phone, it will make a call. CDMA phones, such as those issued by Sprint, usually need to be hooked up to a computer with programming software. There are third party companies who will unlock these phones remotely for a nominal fee if a user provides them with the necessary information on the phone, such as an IMEI on a Sprint phone. Some carriers will provide their users with unlocking services after a certain period of time, or at the end of the contract period, usually for a fee. Unlocked phones are also available for purchase on sites like eBay.
Particularly with cloud computing and so many specialized mobile apps, Americans are becoming more and more dependent on their wireless devices. One other provision in this legislation is the directive to the Librarian of Congress to decide if other devices like tablets could be legally unlocked. Many consumers are hoping the librarian agrees to the “other devices” clause. This law came about because when American consumers spoke up and said, “We want to unlock our mobile phones.” Congress and Obama listened and took action.
By Jenny Hansen