For the past couple of months, the Federal Communications Commission has shown interest in changing carrier policies regarding the process of smartphone unlocking. This week the FCC's new Chairman Tom Wheeler sent out a letter to the president of the CTIA (which represents the mobile carriers), stating that new unlocking policies need to be agreed upon for U.S. mobile companies.
Unlocking has been a point of discussion between the CTIA and FCC for nearly eight months but Friday's letter shows that Wheeler is looking for the new policies to go into effect as soon as possible. In general, the FCC wants consumers to be able to easily unlock their phones once mobile contracts with a carrier have been fulfilled.
Time for Action
Wheeler has been working closely with the CTIA since last month when he took over the FCC, and since the talks have yet to result in change for the consumers, he is hoping that this letter will spur some sort of real change in 2014.
"Enough time has passed, and it is now time for the industry to act voluntarily or for the FCC to regulate. Let's set a goal of including the full unlocking rights policy in the CTIA Consumer Code before the December holiday season," Wheeler said.
The FCC is leading the effort to change unlocking policies, but members of the White House and Congress have also favored allowing consumers to unlock their phones.
Most carriers still refuse to allow their customers to unlock devices even after a contract has been fulfilled. This has continued to be an annoyance for consumers, since they are forced to work with the same carrier on a new contract or sell their phone.
So far, the CTIA has mainly promoted the idea that carriers should have the option to allow unlocking but that making it a requirement to inform customers of how to go about unlocking their phone is not necessary. However, Wheeler is not budging on his stance that a rule needs to be put in place.
"Absent the consumer's right to be informed about unlocking eligibility, any voluntary program would be a hollow shell," he said.
Reluctant To Change
As expected, the carriers have been reluctant to change their policies since making it difficult for someone to switch carriers ensures that companies will always have people coming back for a new plan.
The Obama administration has spoken strongly in support of phone unlocking, and in September the administration called upon the FCC to step up in its efforts to make unlocking a requirement. The CTIA continues to claim that current proposed legislation regarding the process of unlocking would be more than enough to protect consumers.
"Today's U.S. consumers have a wide variety of unlocked device and liberal carrier unlocking policies available to them," said Scott Bergmann, vice president of regulatory affairs for the CTIA. "CTIA also continues to advocate for the passage of 'The Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act' (H.R. 1123), which would address consumer confusion about unlocking as a result of the 2012 decision of the Librarian of Congress.
"While CTIA supports giving consumers a robust set of options, it is important for consumers to note that an unlocked phone doesn't necessarily mean an interoperable phone, given the technological and engineering realities of wireless networks."