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Cell phone unlocking bill moves forward in Senate

The Senate Judiciary Committee votes to repeal the cell phone unlocking ban, which could set the stage for allowing consumers to take any mobile device to any wireless carrier.


Consumers are one tiny step closer to being able to take their phones to another carrier when they switch service providers.

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday unanimously voted to approve a bill that will make it easier for consumers to unlock their cell phones. Once unlocked, wireless subscribers can then take those phones to a different wireless operator.

This bill, along with a bill passed by the House of Representatives in February, would repeal a 2012 decision by the Library of Congress that made cell phone unlocking a violation of the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The DMCA, which prohibits Americans from "circumventing" technologies that protect copyrighted works, gives the Library of Congress the authority to grant exemptions. Last year, the Library of Congress opted not to renew the DMCA exemption for cell phone unlocking, which it had granted in 2006 and 2010.

The change caused a stir in the wireless community, and an online petition garnered some 114,322 signatures and won approval of President Obama.

"With today's strong bipartisan vote in the Judiciary Committee, I hope the full Senate can soon take up this important legislation that supports consumer rights," Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee chairman, said in a statement.

Unlocking a cell phone is important for consumers who travel abroad and for those who want to take their devices to other carriers. The reason why is that most devices sold in the US through wireless operators have a software lock on them which prohibits them from being used on another operator's network. The ban on unlocking put a roadblock in the way for consumers who wanted to use their devices on other networks.

That said, wireless operators have always unlocked devices upon request, although in recent years they have gotten more stringent regarding their requirements. Now most wireless operators require customers to own their devices outright before they are able to request an unlock code.

This requirement hasn't gone away in either bill. Wireless operators are only required to unlock devices that are fully paid for. In other words, if you are still under contract with your carrier and you bought a device at a subsidized price, your wireless operator doesn't have to unlock your phone. And in many instances, the carrier won't.

The Senate bill that has moved out of committee is similar to the House bill that passed earlier in the year. But it has one key difference. The House bill only applies to individuals looking to unlock a single device. It specifically prohibits companies from unlocking cell phones in bulk. This is important because there are many companies that resell cell phones or unlock devices for consumers that would be protected under the Senate version of the bill.

Consumer activists said they are pleased that Congress is responding to the public outcry regarding this issue. And they are happy that the Senate bill offers more flexibility in unlocking, so that consumers can get help from third-party "unlocking" sites.

"This is critical for those who need technical assistance to unlock their device," Laura Moy, staff attorney for Public Knowledge, said in a statement. "We are also pleased that a recent amendment to the bill removed language about bulk unlocking, which -- like individual unlocking -- has nothing to do with copyright law."

The wireless industry supports both bills. And in December, the Federal Communications Commission reached an agreement with the top five wireless operators in the US regarding unlocking. A new law would ensure that this right is protected.

Even though operators have agreed to unlock devices and Congress is working to ensure that right becomes law, other technical roadblocks will keep most consumers from truly being able to take their devices with them when they switch carriers.

The reason why is that not all US wireless operators use the same network technologies or the same radio frequencies to offer their service. For instance, AT&T and T-Mobile have built their networks on a technology called GSM. Phones designed for these networks are the most flexible, because GSM is the same technology that is used throughout the world. And wireless users can switch carriers on unlocked GSM devices simply by swapping out a SIM card.

It's not as simple for wireless customers on Verizon or Sprint, which use a technology called CDMA for their basic voice service. This technology does not use a SIM card, so even if the device is unlocked, a Verizon customer can't slip in a Sprint SIM card and get voice service on Sprint. The device must still be "provisioned" on the new carrier.

In a few years, the landscape will hopefully change as more operators move to the next generation of network technology: 4G LTE. But even then, the transition may not be completely seamless and devices made for different carriers may not be interchangeable.

There are two reasons for this. First, even though all four major US wireless operators are deploying 4G LTE, the technology is mostly used for data services. Voice service on these networks still uses the older GSM or CDMA technology. And second, even though these carriers are all deploying the same 4G LTE network technology, they're using different radio frequencies to deploy the service. Until the carriers overlap more in terms of the spectrum they are using to build the service, we are still likely to have incompatible devices among carriers.

Wireless operators are beginning to deploy voice over LTE services, and some are deploying LTE on the same spectrum bands, which means the future looks bright for true device interoperability.

And someday if companies don't put any software locks on devices, then we'll truly be able to take any mobile device to any wireless carrier. But that's a long way off. For now, consumers will have to be satisfied with this initial baby step.