Despite A Year To Prepare, Wireless Carriers Struggle To Adhere To Weak And Voluntary Cell Phone Unlocking Guidelines

from the you-had-one-job dept

One of the very first things new FCC boss Tom Wheeler did when he entered office was to get wireless carriers to agree to a list of voluntary cell phone unlocking guidelines. The six “demands” are largely common sense and uncontroversial, and include requiring that carriers offer unlocked devices to active overseas service members, make their postpaid and prepaid unlocking policies as clear as possible, respond to unlocking requests within two business days, and automatically notify customers when their contract period ends and their phone can be unlocked.

I’d heard that carrier lobbyists balked at this last request fearing it would “advertise” unlocking, but ultimately acquiesced out of fear of tougher, non-voluntary rules coming down the pike. Note this is entirely separate from the fight over keeping cell phone unlocking legal and the need for DMCA exemption process reform. The rules also don’t require that carriers simply sell unlocked phones outright, since that would probably make a little too much sense. After agreeing to the rules, carriers had more than a year to adhere to all six requirements, and the final deadline arrived last Wednesday.

Sina Khanifar, who you might recall started the White House petition on cell phone unlocking, has done an interesting bit of analysis on how well carriers have adhered to the six rules. He offers up this handy chart showing that T-Mobile and Sprint in particular appear to be struggling:

Interestingly it’s Verizon and AT&T, arguably the worst of the major carriers when it comes to attempts to stifle openness over the years, that come out ahead in adhering to all six guidelines (though your mileage may vary, and since the rules don’t require much, this may not mean much). For Verizon, that’s in part thanks to the Carterfone conditions placed on its 700 MHz spectrum, though that hasn’t stopped the company from fighting openness in general tooth and nail in other ways. As I’ve noted previously the conditions have plenty of loopholes — and anti-competitive behavior is allowed just as long as companies ambiguously insist that what they’re doing (like blocking Google Wallet, or locking bootloaders) is for the “safety and security of the network.”

Similarly interesting is the fact that T-Mobile, despite a recent reputation for being a fierce consumer advocate, sits right alongside Sprint when it comes to failing to adhere to the fairly simple requirements after a year’s head start. Khanifar notes T-Mobile saddles prepaid and postpaid users with a number of strange restrictions, including the fact that users can’t unlock more than 2 devices per line of service in a 12 month period. Between this, the company’s opposition to Title II and its failure to understand the problems with zero rated apps, T-Mobile’s showing it still needs to actually earn that ultra-consumer-friendly reputation.

Khanifar proceeds to note that despite carrier struggles this is at least a step in the right direction, even if we still need DCMA reform to ensure unlocking remains perfectly legal. That said, he quite justly highlights how cell locking no longer makes any coherent sense, for anybody:

“It’s worth taking a step back and examining the absurdity of these locks. If you’ve paid for your AT&T phone, committed to a 2-year contract, and agreed to an “early termination fee,” what purpose does a lock really serve? If you’ve paid cash to purchase a prepaid device, why should it come locked to just one carrier? There’s plenty of evidence that locks serve little real commercial purpose. Verizon’s business hasn’t suffered since they stopped locking their phones. Countries like China and Israel have made locking devices outright illegal with no harm to their wireless industries and plenty of gain for consumers. But unfortunately it’s unlikely that Congress or the FCC will take action to implement a similar policy here in the US.”

Of course unlocked, open devices widens the competitive door, and with the kind of lobbying power AT&T, Verizon and the entertainment industry wield over Congress, getting real DMCA reform or mandated unlock-at-sale rules in play will likely be nothing short of a miracle.

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Companies: at&t, sprint, t-mobile, verizon

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Comments on “Despite A Year To Prepare, Wireless Carriers Struggle To Adhere To Weak And Voluntary Cell Phone Unlocking Guidelines”

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Anonymous Coward says:

and because there are no penalties that would make the companies take notice of their obligations over unlocking, they will sit back, thumbs up ass, brains in neutral and do it when they feel like it!
there should have been some serious consequences for the companies if they didn’t follow the rules, but as stated in the article, they run Congress, the members of which are scared of the industries! just look at the names on the new bill trying to block the FCC and tell me they aren’t bought and paid for industry tarts!!

Isma'il says:

Re: Re: Re:

Exactly right. They tried this same tactic years ago by not allowing a customer to take their phone number with them when they switched, until Congress passed the Wireless Number Portability Act. What Violynne said further up is also spot on. Increasingly, when a consumer buys something (especially electronics), they buy a license to use it….not the actual product. It is this principle that needs to be reformed.

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