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.