Official: U.S. Phone Carriers Agree to Unlock Customer Phones Thanks to FCC Pressure

December 12, 2013 - Written By Andrew Port

No, Ladies and Gentlemen, this is neither a joke nor a dream. Thanks to continuous pressure from the FCC, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon have all agreed to unlock their customer’s phones after their two-year agreements have been met, or after one year of owning a prepaid phone. The carriers will be required by law to notify you after your contract is up that your phone is eligible to be unlocked, and upon request need to provide you with instructions with how to unlock it, “or automatically unlock devices remotely, for free,” the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said today, according to a report from ars technica.

By unlocking a phone, you gain the ability to use that phone on any compatible network, regardless of carrier (meaning that you could take your AT&T HTC One and bring it to another compatible GSM carrier, for example). While only a few carriers are willing to unlock phones for their customers and even fewer sometimes ship them unlocked even at the beginning of each contract, these policies have varied, especially with companies like Verizon. Today’s news will make the unlocking process similar across all major US carriers.

It was only late January of this past year that the Government ruled that you, the consumer, could get in a lot of trouble for going forward and unlocking devices yourself. It was under the impression that software was licensed and not owned, and therefore was not yours to do with as you pleased. This gave cell providers a huge leg up, and also made phones like the Nexus line (and now the Moto G) even more a value, as they were cheap and unlocked. Today’s agreement allows a work around to that by putting the job to unlock phones on the carrier, although it doesn’t help consumers who are still under contract.

Locked phone

The CTIA wireless association sent a response letter to the FCC, in which they stated that the five carriers will adopt the “voluntary industry principles” and that they will be applied both to mobile phones and tablets that are made to work on cellular networks. Each carrier will implement three out of the six standards specified in the agreement within the next three months. Within twelve months, the carriers must implement all six. The clock apparently starts ticking only after the agreement becomes part of CTIA’s code.

Here are the official six provisions:

  1. Disclosure: Each carrier will post on its website its clear, concise, and readily accessible policy on postpaid and prepaid mobile wireless device unlocking.
  2.  Postpaid unlocking policy. Carriers, upon request, will unlock mobile wireless devices or provide the necessary information to unlock their devices for their customers and former customers in good standing and individual owners of eligible devices after the fulfillment of the applicable postpaid service contract, device financing plan or payment of an applicable early termination fee.
  3.  Prepaid unlocking policy. Carriers, upon request, will unlock prepaid mobile wireless devices no later than one year after initial activation, consistent with reasonable time, payment, or usage requirements.
  4. Notice. Carriers that lock devices will clearly notify customers that their devices are eligible for unlocking at the time when their devices are eligible for unlocking or automatically unlock devices remotely when devices are eligible for unlocking, without additional fee. Carriers reserve the right to charge non-customers/non-former customers a reasonable fee for unlocking requests. Notice to prepaid customers may occur at point of sale, at the time of eligibility, or through a clear and concise statement of the policy on the carrier’s website.
  5. Response time. Within two business days after receiving a request, carriers will unlock eligible mobile wireless devices or initiate a request of the OEM to unlock the eligible device, or provide an explanation of why the device does not qualify for unlocking, or why the carrier reasonably needs additional time to process the request.
  6.  Deployed personnel unlocking policy. Carriers will unlock mobile wireless devices for deployed military personnel who are customers in good standing upon provision of deployment papers. Consumers will have access to clear, concise, and readily available policies about unlocking their devices.

Definitely some really exciting stuff happening, especially after so many months of both the White House and FCC saying that customers deserved their phones to be unlocked. What do you all think about this? Let us know in the comments!