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Canadian telecoms will no longer be able to charge for cellphone unlocking

Unlocked devices are the new law of the land in Canada, thanks to a ruling by the nation’s wireless regulator. On Thursday, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) announced that cellular service providers must unlock customers’ smartphones upon request, and that all newly purchased mobile devices must ship unlocked.

Unlocked phones are compatible with more than one cellphone carrier, generally speaking. But historically, obtaining them hasn’t been easy — Canadian carriers like Bell, Rogers, and Telus charge a fee (typically $50) to unlock phones if a customer wants to switch providers.

That’s changing. Starting December 1, Canadian telecom providers will have to unlock phones at no charge.

“The Wireless Code has helped make the wireless market more dynamic to the benefit of Canadians. While they appreciate the Code, they told us loudly and clearly that it could be more effective,” Jean-Pierre Blais, chairman of the CRTC, said in a statement. “We have listened to them. The changes and clarifications we are announcing today will give Canadians additional tools to make informed choices about their wireless services and take advantage of competitive offers in the marketplace.”

The shift comes after the CRTC’s February 2017 review of telecom policies, which the regulator introduced in 2013 and implemented in 2015. Initially, the bureau advocated for a compromise: A capped $38 unlocking fee imposed on all telecoms. But in the end, the CRTC decided to remove them altogether.

In March, the CRTC reported that Canadian telecoms made $37.7 million last year by charging customers to unlock their phones — a 75 percent jump in revenue compared to 2014.

Canadian carriers defended their unlocking fees at the time, arguing that phone locking prevents profiteering third parties from reselling high-end phones overseas. “We think it’s a lot more appropriate that people who actually have their device unlocked bear the cost of the unlocking,” said Howard Slawner, vice-president of regulatory telecom at Rogers.

Freedom Mobile, an independent Canadian carrier, told CBC News that it couldn’t afford to get rid of unlocking fees unless its competitors did so, but that it would benefit from the change in policy because it’d be easier for customers to switch. “A customer can go to … your local computer shop or whatever and get that phone unlocked anyway and perhaps in a dangerous way,” Freedom vice president Ed Antecol said.

The new unlocking clause will become part of the CRTC’s revised Wireless Code, a living document outlining the rights and obligations of carriers. It applies to “all wireless services,” according to the agency, and dictates that ambiguous parts of subscribers’ carrier contracts must be interpreted “in a manner that is favorable to the customer.” And it isn’t the only policy that changed on Thursday.

Cell providers will be required to obtain account holders’ consent before they charge data and roaming fees in a family-shared plan. International roaming charges will be capped at $100 a month and data overage fees at $50, unless a customer agrees to pay more.

And starting next year, cell customers will be able to cancel their contracts within 15 days and return their devices in “near-new” condition at no cost, as long as they have used less than half of their monthly usage limit.

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