The carriers -- Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular -- will adopt a new code that requires them to notify consumers when their phones are eligible for unlocking, and to then unlock devices for people at no charge. The CTIA wireless association told the FCC on Thursday that the carriers will begin to implement the code within three months of its formal adoption; it's not yet clear when that will occur.
Unlocking cell phones allows them to be used on any compatible network, not simply the network the phone was originally bundled with. People who purchase used phones, or who travel abroad, or who have fulfilled their original contracts, often want to unlock the devices.
The CTIA notes in its letter to the FCC that even if carriers unlock phones, they won't necessarily be compatible with all networks. “An unlocked phone is not a fully interoperable phone,” the CTIA writes. “Carriers typically use different frequencies and air interface technologies to provide wireless network access... Additionally, unlocking a device may enable some functionality of the device but not all.The carriers' move comes around four weeks after Wheeler warned CTIA that the FCC would require carriers to unlock phones, if they didn't agree to do so voluntarily.Until this January, consumers were able to unlock phones themselves by tinkering with the digital rights management software that came bundled with the devices. But circumventing that type of software potentially is a crime, unless the Copyright Office has said it approves of the reason for circumventing the software. In the past, the Copyright Office permitted people to thwart the digital rights management programs in order to unlock phones. But last year, the Copyright Office reversed course, effectively subjecting people who unlock phones to the threat of criminal prosecution.
That move drew a widespread backlash, with many observers asking why a copyright law aimed at preventing piracy should be able to prevent people from changing wireless carriers. The White House said it supported changing the law, and several bills to do so were introduced in Congress.