The effort to remove the legal ban on unlocking cell phones may be picking up steam.
On Tuesday, the Obama administration formally asked the Federal Communications Commission to require wireless carriers to unlock devices when requested by customers. The petition, which was made by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is an agency of the Department of Commerce, stated that the move would encourage competition.
“Enabling consumers to switch between operators without losing their investment in wireless devices would enhance competition which, in turn, should produce more service innovation, lower prices, and more consumer-friendly terms and conditions,” the NTIA wrote in its petition.
Many wireless devices sold today are “locked” to a particular carrier, meaning that software inside them prevents them from being used on other networks. That software “lock” can be broken, but doing so is technically a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which, among other things, bars the subverting of software protections.
In 2006 , the Librarian of Congress, which oversees copyright regulations, granted an exemption to the DMCA that permitted consumers to legally unlock their devices. But late last year, the Librarian of Congress declined to renew that exemption and it expired earlier this year. Since then, unlocking wireless devices has again been illegal and those who do so face the threat of stiff fines and even prison sentences.
The cell phone locks help prevent consumers from easily taking their smartphone to another carrier. The locks also force consumers traveling overseas to choose between paying stiff roaming charges for using their cell phones there or buying another phone.
As part of its winning bid for the spectrum it now uses for its LTE network, Verizon agreed not to lock phones that would use that spectrum. AT&T, meanwhile, says that it will unlock customers’ phones, but only if they meet certain conditions.
In the wake of the Librarian of Congress’ decision to not renew the exemption, consumers groups initiated a petition campaign with the Obama administration asking it to support the re-legalization of the unlocking of wireless devices. The petition attracted more than 114,000 signatures, and the Obama administration responded to it by saying it supported unlocking.
A bill in the House of Representatives would overturn the decision by the Librarian of Congress, but it has yet to be voted on by the full body.
The proposal by the NTIA doesn’t go as far as consumer advocates would like. Instead of allowing consumers to unlock phones themselves, it would place the power to unlock devices in the hands of the carriers.
The carriers have argued that cell phone locks are important to prevent consumers who received subsidized phones from skipping out on their contracts and to prevent the bulk unlocking of devices by companies seeking to exploit differences in pricing by selling them overseas.
Photo courtesy of AT&T.