AT&T Still Proudly Makes Unlocking Phones Under Contract Annoying and Impossible

from the ill-communication dept

One of the more interesting things unveiled at Apple’s most recent press event was the company’s AppleSIM, or universal SIM technology embedded in the iPad Air 2 that quickly allows users to switch carriers, presenting you with easy wireless broadband pricing for each carrier option. Of course, when Apple quietly announced this functionality, Verizon wasn’t listed as a supporter. While AT&T was supposed to be a partner, the company later stated they wouldn’t fully support the functionality either. In AT&T-fashion, they offered up a non-explanation explanation, stating that you can still switch carriers, but AT&T would just prefer it if you’d do it the old-fashioned, cumbersome way, because that’s just the way they do it:

“With us you can change carriers with this iPad any time you want,? he said. ?It is an unlocked device. ? All [you] have to do is switch out the SIM in the device so it works on another carrier.” As for why AT&T is locking the SIM card to its network while other carriers are not, Siegel said that ?it?s just simply the way we?ve chosen to do it.”

Of course, blocking anything that could possibly promote choice and competition is long how AT&T “does it,” even if doing it that way doesn’t always make coherent sense. We’ve documented a long and proud AT&T history of such behavior, ranging from blocking disruptive technology to trying to buy off the wireless sector’s few serious competitors. You can be fairly sure Apple will have a hell of a time bringing AppleSIM technology to their phones, since that’s simply not the way the old phone company guys — pampered by a generation of regulatory capture (not to mention a massive retail and special access, or tower backhaul, duopoly) — have chosen to do it.

AT&T can be a harsh partner if you’re not familiar with the company’s particular uncompetitive charms. Lee Hutchinson at Ars Technica has been a loyal AT&T customer ever since the launch of the original AT&T-exclusive iPhone, and simply wanted to unlock his device for use during an overseas trip — yet ran into a brick wall at AT&T. After the carrier’s auto-unlock website tool rejected his advances, he contacted live support, who informed him he’d need to pay a $195 early termination fee if he wanted to use his device the way he actually wanted to. That left Hutchinson justifiably annoyed and confused:

“Why all the fuss, AT&T? Why refuse to grant a simple, reasonable request from a customer who?s been with you for more than seven years, and who provides a steady $130 a month of revenue? All I wanted was to take my AT&T device with me overseas, rather than having to grab a loaner device from Ron Amadeo (who at this point basically has a Scrooge McDuck-style money vault, but filled with Android phones instead of gold coins). Now, I’m left with the option of accepting AT&T’s policies?which I won’t?or canceling my contract and taking my $130 a month of revenue to one of AT&T’s competitors. All because they wouldn’t agree to a simple request that would have had no affect on the terms of our existing agreement. In what world does that stupid calculus work out?”

Hutchinson correctly notes that even Verizon, that ever-stalwart opponent of net neutrality rules, has current unlocking rules that are much more user friendly. T-Mobile, the company that regulators blocked AT&T from acquiring, also has significantly more flexible policies (though still far from perfect) in place — allowing you to unlock your device under contract if you’ve got 18 consecutive months of payments on the books.

After the DMCA kerfuffle of a few years ago, Congress passed a law making cell phone unlocking legal again last July, but it not only punted on the deeper problems inherent in the DMCA, but also on simply requiring that phones be completely unlocked at sale. Changes have come glacially, but not without a large amount of carrier whining. The FCC got the big four carriers to sign off on a set of voluntary guidelines (pdf) late last year requiring that they make phone unlocking policies clear, respond to user unlock requests within a couple of days, unlock all devices for overseas military personnel, and notify customers when their phone is eligible to be unlocked (carriers balked heavily at this last one).

Additional progress in killing off the long-term contract and ETF model here in the U.S. has come courtesy of T-Mobile, which, while not quite as disruptive on price as the press and CEO John Legere would have you believe, has done a great job in killing off a number of less consumer-friendly carrier policies. AT&T has responded to this competition the only way that pampered duopolists know how — they first tried to destroy the competitor through buying it, and when that didn’t work — settled on clinging desperately to old anti-competitive policies like an old baby blanket, oblivious to the fact that you don’t retain loyal customers by pissing them off.

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Companies: at&t

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Comments on “AT&T Still Proudly Makes Unlocking Phones Under Contract Annoying and Impossible”

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27 Comments
Nancy Thomasch (profile) says:

Re: ATT customer service

I moved to Germany today from the States. I went to ATT to pay off my new iPhone 6+ so that it could be unlocked to take with me. No problem, they said, simply go to this unlock website and we will do it. Do you think they did? Those jerks are refusing, and now will not return my phone calls or give me any answers. I would have tossed them the phone instead of paying for it, had they not LIED boldface to me.

NEVER again will I use ATT, and please no one use them. They lie, cheat, and steal, even from loyal customers with years of contracts with them. What they did was outright theft, telling me they would unlock after I paid off the $807 I owed on the new phone. They violated 2 verbal contracts with me, twice I was told they would unlock so I could take it to Germany – when I bought it and when I paid the contract off. Even the President’s office is refusing to help, and now I am in Germany with no leverage.

Karl Bode (profile) says:

Re: Verizon

Generally those carterfone conditions don’t mean much, and I’ve watched as they’ve trampled them time and time again. You can violate them provided you declare your behavior (whether that’s blocking Google wallet or disabling tethering) is for the security and integrity of the network. Throw some faux-technical justifications out there for whatever you’re doing, and the FCC goes and takes a nap.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: What's the big deal?

There’s nothing that says the contract has to make sense. It’s probably in AT&T’s best interest to make their policies more sane though.

If you agree to the terms of something, it’s unreasonable to expect to change those terms after the fact. I’m sure if AT&T changed their terms for their benefit you’d be upset. Also if that happened, you would be absolved of the early termination fee.

tl;dr: read the fine print.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 What's the big deal?

the contract DOES NOT state you are buying a locked phone.

Whether it’s in the contract, the product description, or terms of service, the consumer is definitely informed. People somehow feel entitled that they should be absolved of the restrictions of their transactions.

Complaining about this is as inane as people getting upset at Google for reading their email.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 What's the big deal?

You know what the terms of service are? The contract. THe product description? no where in there.

You can’t buy an unlocked phone from AT&T, even if you buy one in the clear.

The point of the cell phone unlocking debate is the locking terms are considered unfair and are only accepted because the carrier has so much leverage over you. There is a whole region of contract law talking about how unbalanced contracts can be rendered unenforceable.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: What's the big deal?

“No one’s forcing you to buy a locked phone, you agree to it in the contract.”

Nobody’s claiming otherwise. What people are complaining about is that the locking is an unreasonable term, contract or no.

“If you don’t want to be locked, buy an unlocked phone.”

Of course. But that in no way means that people don’t have the right to complain about locking being required just because you choose to pay for your phone through a contract.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: What's the big deal?

Their right to complain ends after the money changes hands and they have agreed to the terms of service. Their right to complain would come back if the terms changed.

Unlocking is done at the carrier’s discretion, and unless the law changes, that’s how it will stay.

This is only an issue for people who are willfully ignorant to what they are agreeing to.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: What's the big deal?

“Their right to complain ends after the money changes hands and they have agreed to the terms of service.”

I disagree strenuously with this. People always have a right to complain.

“Unlocking is done at the carrier’s discretion, and unless the law changes, that’s how it will stay.”

Which is a huge part of the point. Carriers will never change this practice. Since the practice is harmful, unavoidable, and serves no legitimate purpose, combined with the fact that the cell service market is an oligopoly, a legislative solution is required.

“This is only an issue for people who are willfully ignorant to what they are agreeing to.”

If someone has no other option but to agree to an objectionable contract, I think it’s rather unfair to denigrate them for objecting to it.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 What's the big deal?

I don’t doubt that cellphone service in the US is oligarchic (the same is true here) with many areas completely lacking competition. Nor do I doubt AT&T’s arrogance and F. you! attitude towards consumers; it’s legendary.

However, signing a multi-year contract to get a subsidized phone ought to buy them something. They worry people are going to default on the contract and skoot off to another carrier with their cheap, subsidized iBauble. Sure, they can destroy your credit rating and/or take you to court, but who wants that hassle? Why should AT&T be forced to force you to live up to the contract you signed? Pay the ETF if you want out.

Bring Your Own Device. It costs more up front, but you’d be free from day one, as I understand it. Why’s that an unreasonable request?

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 What's the big deal?

“They worry people are going to default on the contract and skoot off to another carrier with their cheap, subsidized iBauble.”

Yes, this is their reasoning, but it makes no sense at all. Locking does not give any additional substantial protection against that. There’s not a huge difference between carriers, after all, so you don’t gain anything by defaulting on a contract to switch to a different one. You’ll still be paying through the nose either way.

Locking provides only one benefit to the carriers: to make it as difficult as possible for people to switch to a different carrier once they are no longer bound by the contract.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: What's the big deal?

Did you know there is an entire area of contact law dedicated to unfair contract terms and the unenforcability of those contracts?

Or how about that sales rep will tell you that you can get your phone unlocked at time X or by calling person Y. Sales reps will LIE to you to get that sale, and then you are not ‘willfully ignorant’. You have been ‘bilibrately misinformed’. And yet somehow we just ‘know’ its locked.

lostalaska (profile) says:

Tough even when out of contract

I’ve been trying to unlock my iPhone 4s from AT&T. I got the phone new a little over 3 years ago so it’s been off contract for about 13 months now. I tried the web page found under their support section of the website for unlocking a phone. It asks for your IMEI number and email and then says you’ll get a response back in 48 hours normally. I got this response back…

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=
Request number: XXXXXXXX

Thank you for contacting AT&T Customer Care about unlocking your AT&T Mobile device.

We cannot complete your request because this account has reached the maximum number of unlock requests allowed during a given period. If you have questions, please review the AT&T Mobile Device Unlock eligibility requirements by going to this link, att.com/deviceunlock.

Thank you for your business. For other questions about our AT&T wireless service or Mobile devices, please visit att.com.

Sincerely,
The AT&T Customer Care Team
=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

I have never requested a phone be unlocked that was on my account and the only other phone on my account is my girlfriends Galaxy S4, but my name is the one on the account and as far as I’m aware I’m the only one with access to my account. So I called their help line and spent some time on the phone with a support specialist that didn’t see any reason for me to be concerned about my account already having the maximum number of phone unlocks having already been reached and she said they contract the phone unlocking through another company and have no way of seeing what phones had already been unlocked using my account. She said she’d forward it onto someone else and I’d get an email back in a couple of days letting me know if AT&T would unlock my out of contract phone. So I have a sneaking suspicion that they just decline everyone regardless of if you’re on contract or not, if you’re on contract they’ll use that as the argument. If you’re off contract they’ll say you’ve used all your phone unlocks and do their best to have you run in circles until you just give up.

Anonymous Coward says:

Buy unlocked off contract

AT&T: We will give you service, but you have to wear these handcuffs for two years. If you want to remove them before then, you’ll have to pay a fee.
Consumer: Sure! Sounds great!

Several months later…

Consumer: Wait a second, I value my mobility, can you take these off for free?
AT&T: That would be a breach of the terms you agreed to, sorry no.
Consumer: NO! You should do what I want because reasons!

There are two fools here:
1) The creators of AT&T’s policy
2) Those who consent to it

Anonymous Coward says:

Forswearing a cell carrier is like forswearing an airline

If you do it each time you suffer a customer service nightmare, you’ll run out of options very quickly.

Just like airlines (and retail), cellular service is an undifferentiated commodity competing mainly on price. The only reason it has any customer loyalty at all is precisely because of the companies’ draconian customer-as-hostage policies (or, occasionally, differing levels of coverage by geographical area).

And the people who run these companies know this, which is why there is no real incentive for them to treat their customers better, or provide better service for less money. Why bother?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Forswearing a cell carrier is like forswearing an airline

AT&T’s prepaid plans are much more consumer friendly, especially if you buy an unlocked phone. Unless you have very high data usage rates, it’s hard to justify buying AT&T service on contract. Of course there are many other options in wireless, but swearing off AT&T postpaid doesn’t mean you can’t choose a better AT&T plan.

Lawrence D’Oliveiro says:

There’s Nothing “Disruptive” About The Apple SIM

The Apple SIM is just a stupid idea. In just about the entire world (except the US), switching carriers has always been as easy as switching a SIM card. The Apple SIM doesn’t offer any new capabilities to the customer, whereas to the carrier, it allows them to prevent the customer switching carriers—as AT&T has demonstrated.

In the entire rest of the world apart from the US, when a new phone model comes out, we get to choose it independently of what carrier we’re with. Only in the US do you have to wait for a carrier-specific model to come out so you can buy it.

In other words, in the entire rest of the world, we get to enjoy “free-market competition”. While in the US, you don’t.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: There’s Nothing “Disruptive” About The Apple SIM

Only in the US do you have to wait for a carrier-specific model to come out so you can buy it.

That is insane, and I thought there are laws against such things (anti-trust). You need to complain to the FCC and your elected reps until that’s broken up. Anti-consumer corporate sweetheart deals should land people in jail.

Europe has none of this madness going on, and they pay far less, and get far more from it, yet their providers appear to thrive.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: There’s Nothing “Disruptive” About The Apple SIM

“I thought there are laws against such things (anti-trust)”

Antitrust laws wouldn’t apply here. They tend to be about things like collusion and price-fixing, not carrier lock-in.

“Europe has none of this madness going on, and they pay far less, and get far more from it, yet their providers appear to thrive.”

Indeed. I am exceedingly jealous of Europe for both their cell and internet services.

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