Commentary

NTIA Seeks Rule Requiring Carriers To Unlock Cell Phones

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration today formally asked the the Federal Communications Commission to require wireless companies to unlock cell phones.

“By giving consumers greater freedom to choose among alternative mobile service providers and use wireless devices that they lawfully acquire from others, the proposed rule would both increase competition in the mobile services market and enhance consumer welfare,” the NTIA said in its petition to the FCC.]

The agency argues in its petition that a rule requiring unlocking "would enhance user choice within service areas."

"To the extent that an unlocked device enables a consumer to move more freely among providers, the proposed unlocking rule would further the ability to select the provider that best suits the consumer's needs,” the NTIA says in its petition. “As long as a consumer continues to adhere to any existing service agreement -- or pays the specified fees or penalties for prematurely terminating that agreement -- the unlocking rule’s benefit for consumers does not unduly burden the original providers.”

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Unlocking cell phones allows them to be used on any compatible network, not just the one they were bundled with originally. People who purchase used phones, or who travel abroad, often want to unlock the devices.

In the past, people were free to unlock their phones. But now, anyone who unlocks a mobile phone potentially faces prosecution for circumventing the digital rights management software that comes with the devices.

Every three years, the Librarian of Congress issues exemptions to an anti-piracy law that forbids removing digital locks. In the past, the Copyright Office granted an exemption that allowed people to unlock cell phones. But last year, the authorities decided to allow the exemption to expire.

The result is that people who unlock cell phones now face the threat of criminal prosecution -- despite the fact that unlocking cell phones doesn't in any way contribute to digital piracy.

In March, the Obama administration said it supports lifting the unlocking ban. “Consumers should be able to unlock their cell phones without risking criminal or other penalties," R. David Edelman, senior advisor for Internet, Innovation & Privacy  wrote at the time.

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