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Sprint to unlock its phones

Sprint said today that it may begin to unlock its cell phones for use on other carrier networks.

Could it be that Sprint has a heart? According to a proposed settlement for a California class action lawsuit it may just have one. Sprint announced today that if the settlement is reached the carrier will provide customers with the necessary codes to unlock their handsets for use on other carrier networks.

If enacted, the move would allow departing Sprint customers to take their phones with them when they leave the carrier. Locked phones, or handsets that are tied to one carrier, have have long dominated the U.S. market but in the last couple years the practice has earned the wrath of consumers.

The suit, which was filed last year in Northern California, alleged that phone locking is anticompetitive. Because a locked phone stops being able to make calls when a customer leaves a carrier, they are unable to use it on a new carrier unless it is unlocked. And because unlocking requires a code, customers are forced to buy a new phone when they sign up for new service.

Sprint's decision is momentous for the U.S. market, and if other carriers follow suit it could cause a huge shift in how cell phones are used here. Unlocked phones provide customers with much more freedom to use a cell phone of their choice. A Sprint spokesman said the carrier would provide the unlock codes once a departing customer's bill is paid. Also, the company would tell new customers how to obtain the unlock codes and it will allow its customer service reps to connect a non-Sprint phone to the carrier's network.

Of course there are a few catches. Like Verizon Wireless, Alltel, and U.S. Cellular, Sprint uses a technology called CDMA so only cell phones that use CDMA will be compatible with its network (former Nextel phones on the iDEN network won't be covered by the unlocking move). CDMA phones will not work on AT&T or T-Mobile, or vice versa, because those carriers use an incompatible technology called GSM. And finally, though an unlocked Sprint handset is technically compatible with another CDMA carrier like Verizon, the new carrier would have to activate the phone for you because CDMA phones don't use SIM cards. And as of now, there's no guarantee they'll do so.