It’s certainly not good news, but it’s not nearly as bad as many commentators are making it out to be. Tomorrow, January 26th, a provision in the DMCA takes full effect. If you buy a new handset from a carrier on or after that date, you cannot use your own means to unlock it. The carrier has to grant permission for that. This has caused much confusion, but it’s really that straight forward.
- If you purchased a phone from a carrier before 1/26/13, you can unlock it however you’d like.
- If you buy an unlocked phone after Saturday, it’s the same as ever.
- You carrier still might grant you permission to unlock your phone.
Your carrier will likely grant you permission to unlock your phone after your contract term with them has expired. Most carriers already provide this service. There is a chance, though, that carriers use this new provision to assert their dominance. Since they don’t have to unlock phones, they might stop doing so in all but a few cases. And that would be a shame.
Carriers do subsidize phones for customers who sign two-year contracts, and to some that might signal a level of ownership for the carrier. That is, they’re providing you with a discount, which they recoup via your monthly fees. But no matter what the case, the carrier will be repaid in one form or another.
If the customer cancels the contract she will have to pay an early termination fee, prorated to reflect the level to which they’ve paid back the subsidy via monthly fees.
If the customer unlocks but continues the contract with a different phone the customer continues repaying the subsidy by paying those monthly fees. It’s not as though the carrier will offer the customer another subsidy on a new phone while the contract term is still active. (And carriers are more strict about this now than ever before.)
Any way you view it, the customer owns the phone. So why can’t they unlock it without carrier permission? The Library of Congress explained in a rule written in October, which kicked off this whole hoopla.
…with respect to new wireless handsets, there are ample alternatives to circumvention. That is, the marketplace has evolved such that there is now a wide array of unlocked phone options available to consumers. While it is true that not every wireless device is available unlocked, and wireless carriers’ unlocking polices are not free from all restrictions, the record clearly demonstrates that there is a wide range of alternatives from which consumers may choose in order to obtain an unlocked wireless phone.
So because unlocked phones are available, we are not forced to buy locked phones. That’s specious reasoning at best. In other words, “because there are alternatives, carriers can do whatever they want.” It’s difficult to not find this irksome.
It is a wonder that we haven’t heard more from cellular consumer advocacy groups such as Mobile Future. They should be all over this, as it needlessly punishes consumers. It might not be the biggest deal, since the great majority of wireless customers have no interest in unlocking their phones. But perhaps if they understood the freedoms they’re granted by doing so, they’d be more keen to the idea.