U.S. carriers meet voluntary deadline for unlocking mobile phones

Seven major carriers on Wednesday met a voluntary, industry-created deadline to set conditions for unlocking to occur.

Unlocking a mobile phone from a single U.S. carrier has caused consumers headaches in recent years, but seven major carriers on Wednesday met a voluntary, industry-created deadline to set conditions for unlocking to occur.

The Federal Communications Commission congratulated the carriers in a blog. "Full implementation of the unlocking principles is a positive development for both consumers and wireless providers, as it increases competition to innovate, " the FCC said.

Software locks on smartphones and other mobile phones prohibit users from using a device on another operator's network, which makes it hard for someone to take a device loaded with apps to another carrier or to use the device when traveling abroad.

Even though carriers have adhered to ways for consumers to get phones unlocked, the CTIA wireless industry group said that an unlocked phone isn't necessarily an interoperable phone, since different carriers use different technologies and wireless spectrum bands.

The Feb. 11, 2015, deadline for voluntary compliance was set in December 2013 by the wireless industry in a provision within the CTIA Consumer Code for Wireless Service. While the voluntary code lays out conditions that allow for unlocking, the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, which was signed by President Obama last August, also legalized unlocking.

According to the code's provisions, the carriers will unlock a postpaid mobile device upon request, assuming the terms of a service contract have been met and the account is in good standing. Carriers will unlock prepaid devices no later than a year after initial activation and will notify prepaid device owners when the device is eligible to be unlocked if the device isn't automatically unlocked. Carriers will also unlock mobile devices for deployed military personnel who are customers in good standing.

The seven carriers who agreed to the code are AT&T, Bluegrass Cellular, Cellcom, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon Wireless. Together they cover almost 97% of U.S. wireless subscribers, according to CTIA spokeswoman Amy Storey. She said other carriers have said they will comply with the voluntary consumer code.

The process to get to widespread unlocking was involved. Before Obama signed the unlocking law last August, a 2012 decision by the Library of Congress made cell phone unlocking by individuals a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. The DMCA prohibits circumventing of technology that protects copyrighted works and grants the Library of Congress authority to issue exemptions such as cell phone unlocking. Obama's signing of the unlocking law overturned the 2012 DMCA prohibition.

After the 2012 Library of Congress decision, the FCC began working with carriers in the CTIA to find ways to allow consumers to unlock mobile phones.

The FCC posted a description of cell phone unlocking on its website. According to the website, many devices can be unlocked by obtaining unlock codes from a carrier, or through a software update. The FCC also posted an FAQ that notes that most consumers should assume they purchased a locked phone unless it was specially sold as "unlocked." Some carriers will complete the unlocking process in-store while others will unlock them remotely and automatically.

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