As the White House decides whether to get involved in the heated fight for the right to unlock mobile phones, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission is weighing in, suggesting his agency is investigating the matter.
Librarian of Congress James H. Billington in October exercised his office's right to determine that tampering with software or hardware to make it accessible to a new wireless network should not be exempt from the Digital Media Copyright Act (DMCA), passed by Congress in 1998 and signed by President Bill Clinton.
Among the provisions of that act: It's illegal to circumvent a technological access control, such as a phone's ability to access wireless networks. That tampering, known as unlocking, had previously been viewed as exempt from the DMCA.
The People Are Revolting
Under pressure from wireless carriers worried about phones being switched before they have recouped subsidies for expensive smartphones, the Librarian of Congress ruled that the exemption only applies "if the operator of the wireless communications network to which the handset is locked has failed to unlock it within a reasonable period of time following a request by the owner of the wireless telephone handset."
As of Friday afternoon, 112,490 people have added their names to an online petition calling on the White House to step in "to rescind this decision, and failing that, champion a bill that makes unlocking permanently legal." That's 12,490 more than the number that requires the White House to respond in writing to the petition.
Now, speaking at the CrunchGov conference in San Francisco Wednesday sponsored by TechCrunch, Julius Genachowski, chairman of the FCC, said "it's something that we will look at, at the FCC, to see if we can and should enable consumers to use unlocked phones." He said the regulation in its current form raises "competition questions" and "innovation concerns."
But it is unclear what the White House or the FCC can do to overcome the Library of Congress, which reviews its rules every three years.
Purchasing an unlocked device is an expensive proposition: The iPhone 5 sells for $649 for the 16-gigabyte model, $749 for the 32 GB and $849 for the 64 GB without a contract. (The unlocked iPhone only works on GSM networks.)
But consumers are increasingly demanding the same freedom of choice that those in Europe and Asia enjoy, said wireless analyst Gerry Purdy of MobileTrax.
"In Europe it is the same standard everywhere, GSM," Purdy said, "so there is no unlocking issue." But Americans would like to continue being able to get their smartphones at a cheap initial cost of $100 to $200 (with costs subsidized and later recouped by carriers) and also have the right to switch.
"I think we are headed for a continued argument over this," Purdy told us. "Eventually we should see more networks that are open [supporting different types of devices]. Google and others are working on that but it's a ways off."
In the short term, Purdy said, wireless carriers will probably have the upper hand, "unless the people raise their hands in revolt."
Posted: 2013-03-04 @ 3:51pm PT
As long as you pay your contract, you should be allowed to unlock. If you are travelling overseas, you are "raped" by the almost criminal roaming charges which you can only avoid by using a local sim card where you travel. Domestic providers have no right to or expectation for such usury charges. Once you paid off your phone, there should be no protection for the provider.