It will be easier for consumers to get out of the grip of Ma Verizon, Ma AT&T, Ma Sprint, Ma T-Mobile and Ma U.S. Cellular under a deal announced yesterday that creates industry standards for unlocking devices so they can be used on another carrier’s network once a contract comes of age. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler brokered the agreement between the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA) and riled-up consumer groups.
“The deal came in the wake of a consumer rebellion over the policy of locking cellphones to a carrier,” reports NPR’s Laura Sydell. “A petition that garnered more than 114,000 signatures landed at the White House, and the Obama administration sided with the petitioners.” Indeed, “the FCC and carriers are doing their part,” writes economic adviser Gene Sperling on the White House Blog. “Now it is time for Congress to step up and finish the job by passing the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act.”
Under the agreement, providers that lock phones must notify consumers when their devices are eligible for unlocking, typically at the end of their wireless contract. Carriers also can choose to unlock phones remotely when they are eligible, reports Gautham Nagesh in the Wall Street Journal. “The deal also covers prepaid cellphone providers, which must unlock customer cellphones within one year of initial activation.”
“Today, we see the manifestation of what I call the ‘see-saw rule’ — the more industry acts to meaningfully regulate itself, the less that has to be done by government,” said Wheeler in the opening sentence of his statement announcing the deal. Wheeler went on to say that the agreement “offers greater transparency and in so doing affirms the Commission’s commitment to making competition the centerpiece of our efforts.”
“This may be the end of the year-long unlocking saga, which began when the Librarian of Congress listened to wireless industry lobbyists and made a change to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that made it illegal for a consumer to unlock a new wireless device — even if he owns the device outright — without the permission of his current wireless carrier,” writes Chris Morran on Consumerist.
“The wound is practically a self-inflicted one as lawyers from the wireless association, CTIA, were the ones to stir the hornet's nest at the Library of Congress,” Reuters’ Alina Selyukh points out. “U.S. copyright law had an exemption allowing unlocking of devices since 2006, but in the new review in 2012, the CTIA lawyers successfully challenged it.”
Arguing “that new, unlocked phones were widely available and that the carriers' unlocking policies were already flexible, they “convinced the Library of Congress that the exemption was no longer warranted.”
That just opened a can of worms, it seems.
“The industry won a legal argument but failed to anticipate it morphing into a policy argument,” Jot Carpenter, the CTIA’s VP for federal affairs, tells Selyukh. “I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned from that.”
Meanwhile, the FCC voted 3-2 yesterday to consider lifting its ban on in-flight cell phone use, CNET’s Marguerite Reardon reports, which would make the airspace at cruising altitude not only safe for mindless jabbering and high-stakes deal making but also for mobile native advertising on Twitter and the like.
Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, meanwhile, told CNN’s Mike M. Ahlers and Katia Hetter in a statement that “he is looking into the possibility of banning in-flight calls, citing its aviation consumer protection authority.”
Also, legislation was introduced in the Senate to ban conversations on commercial flights. A provision “that would prohibit in-flight voice communications but allow text messaging” is already pending in the House.
The FCC’s Wheeler painted himself as a reluctant, if key, player in the unfolding debate.
“I'm the last person in the world who wants to listen to someone talking to me while I fly across the country,” he told a congressional panel yesterday, according to the CNN report. “But we are the technical agency, and we will make the rules for the way the new technology works.”
Talk about opening a can of worms.