In under a month after the new FCC Chairman had written an official letter to the CTIA president regarding the unfair state of smartphone unlocking, the CTIA has already released an official statement announcing a 6 part unlocking process for consumers. The new FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler, after only being on the job for a week had told the carriers (through their industry trade group, the CTIA) that they had to finalize a process on unlocking consumers’ phones after their contracts had been completed (or phones were paid off). He gave them until before the Christmas holiday to accomplish their task, or else the FCC would step in and regulate the process instead of letting the carriers do so voluntarily like they had in the past.
The December 12th, announcement from the CTIA mentions Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and US Cellular (the only 5 remaining carriers) as agreeing carriers that have implemented a voluntary 6-part process to unlocking consumers’ devices. The 6 principles are broken down to Disclosure, Postpaid unlocking policies, prepaid unlocking policies, Notice, Response Time and Deployed Personnel Unlocking Policy.
In the disclosure part, each carrier is required to post their policies about the unlocking of both pre-paid and post-paid devices in a clear, concise and readily available way.
The post-paid unlocking policy will require carriers to unlock mobile wireless devices for both current and former customers in good standing and individual owners of eligible devices after the completion of the postpaid service contract, finance plan or the payment of an ETF (early termination fee).
The pre-paid unlocking policy requires the carriers to provide, upon request, an unlock of the devices no later than one year after the device’s initial activation. There is an additional caveat that mentions consistent with reasonable time, payment or usage requirements, which seems vague since I assume this means people that have been using their service without any breaks in service for a year or a cummulative period of one year (if holes of service exist). But this is not very clearly worded.
In the notice part of the policy, carriers that unlock devices must clearly notify customers that their devices are eligible for unlocking at the time when their devices are eligible for unlocking or automatically unlock the devices remotely, without an additional fee. Carriers do, however, reserve the right to charge non-customers or non-former customers a reasonable fee for unlocking requests (example, me buying a Lumia 1020 for use on T-Mobile, since it is locked to AT&T). This is somewhat fair, but then again, carrier exclusives are bullshit to begin with and only cause consumers to be stuck to one carrier if they want a desirable device. The idea of a reasonable fee is once again very vague and if the phone costs $600, they could easily charge $50 for an unlock (simply providing a code).
For the response time section of the unlocking process, carriers must unlock eligible mobile devices within two days of request or request that the OEM provide an unlock method. If the device is not eligible for unlocking, the carrier must still respond within two days explaining why the device is not unlockable or why the carrier needs more time to process the request. I could see this spot also being another way for the carriers to slow down the process, if they intentionally understaff the unlocking division of the company and make the process a slow one because they need ‘additional time’ due to being ‘understaffed’. Unfortunately for the carriers, they simply can’t be trusted and nothing is beneath them when it comes to mistreating customers.
Last but not least, is the deployed personnel unlocking policy, which requires the carriers to unlock mobile devices for deployed military personnel who are customers in good standing upon provision of deployment papers.
The carriers also reserve the right to deny any unlock requests if they have a reason to believe that the device is stolen or the request is fraudulent. Although, I don’t quite get how a smartphone unlock request could be fraudulent unless the phone is stolen. The carrers have also agreed to implement three of the standards set by these six parts within the next 3 months and to fully implement all six within the next 12 months.
So, if you’re on AT&T or Verizon and have a locked phone, there’s a good chance that even if your contract is up and you want to take your phone with you to T-Mobile or Sprint, it may not be easy to do for the next year or so. The carriers could beat their own timeline, however, I just don’t see them rushing to do this considering that it likely will increase the churn rates.