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Want to unlock your smartphone? The new FCC Chairman has your back

fcc chairmans net neutrality revisions may enough silence dissent tom wheeler
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler Image used with permission by copyright holder

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has a new chairman – hooray! Really, you should be excited about that (boring) bit of news because this new guy, Tom Wheeler, has already gone to bat for cell phone users who want to unlock their handsets.

In a letter (pdf) sent to Steve Largent, president and CEO of CTIA – The Wireless Association (i.e. a heavy-hitting lobbyist organization), Wheeler explained that he expects wireless carriers to make it far easier for customers to unlock their phones, which allows them to switch to a new carrier or use the device on foreign networks while traveling abroad.

At the moment, unlocking without carrier permission is illegal due to an intellectual property law known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA), which prohibits the unauthorized individuals from tampering with copyrighted software – including the software that locks a device to a particular carrier’s network. Unlocking without permission could, technically, land you in jail for five years and cause you to suffocate under a $500,000 fine.

See, here in the U.S., most of us buy our smartphones for discounted rates up front, and the pay off the rest of the cost of the device as part of our monthly bills. That’s why an “on-contract” iPhone 5S costs $200, even though the real price is $650. Because of this set up, wireless companies don’t want you just buying a discounted phone, unlocking it, and then taking off to a competing carrier. Makes sense – but the whole jail and fines thing makes the current situation far from fair.

So Wheeler (bless his consumer-protecting heart) says any new policy that CTIA member companies adopt must contain five key parts. They are as follows:

  1. Wireless company policies on unlocking must be “clear, concise, and readily accessible” to customers.
  2. Customers who have fulfilled their service contracts, former customers, or other “legitimate” owners must be able to unlock their device, without getting any lip.
  3. Wireless carriers must “notify customers when their devices are eligible for unlocking and/or automatically unlock devices when eligible, without an additional fee.” Bam!
  4. Eligible customers must have their devices unlocked within two days after a request is made, or be notified in the same period about why they aren’t eligible.
  5. And finally, carriers must unlock the devices of any military personnel who are deployed overseas.

This is a vast improvement over the status quo – but it doesn’t go far enough for unlocking advocates. Sina Khanifar, founder of consumer advocacy group Fix the DMCA and the main man fighting to change the laws around device unlocking, said in an email that he’s “excited” to see Wheeler and the FCC addressing unlocking, but that the only way to make things truly fair for consumers is to pass new legislation that lets us unlock our devices themselves, without relying on the carriers for anything.

“Congress needs to pass a bill that would enable to consumer’s to unlock their devices on their own, without requiring carrier cooperation,” said Khanifar. “… Consumers should have a right to modify their devices, whether its jailbreaking or unlocking them, even if carriers voluntarily offer more liberal unlocking policies.”

The best legislative solution, says Khanifar, is the “Unlocking Technology Act” from Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) because it “is the only bill that would comprehensively reform anti-circumvention and restore a consumer’s ability to freely use and modify their devices.”

All told, it sounds like things are looking up for us consumers. Get in here, you – it’s time for a group hug.

[Image via Huffington Post]

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Andrew Couts
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Features Editor for Digital Trends, Andrew Couts covers a wide swath of consumer technology topics, with particular focus on…
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