FCC, wireless carriers reach cell phone unlocking deal

The ban on unlocking mobile phones is lifted as regulators and carriers finally work out the details of the new policy.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
3 min read

It appears the i's have been dotted and the t's have been crossed for a new policy that will now let consumers unlock their cell phones more easily.

The Federal Communications Commission has reached an agreement with the five major US wireless carriers that requires the carriers to disclose how and when cell phones on their networks can be unlocked, according to Reuters.

"CTIA and these companies share the goal of ensuring that America's wireless consumers continue to benefit from the world-leading range of competitive devices and offerings they currently enjoy, and believe that these voluntary principles will enhance these consumer benefits," the CTIA, an industry trade group that represents wireless carriers, wrote in a letter (PDF) to the FCC on Thursday.

Unlocking cell phones allows handsets to be used on a wireless network other than that of the originating carrier. It's a process that wireless carriers are usually willing to accommodate once the customer's wireless contract has been fulfilled.

Under the terms of the deal, carriers agreed that customers' phones could be unlocked at the end of their contract, which makes the mobile business a more even playing field. Carriers also have to notify customers when they are eligible for unlocking, as well as process or deny unlocking requests within two business days. The deal also states that carriers can charge non-customers a fee for unlocking a phone.

Carriers have allowed for cell phone unlocking in the past; but earlier this year the process became illegal after the Library of Congress opted not to renew an exemption in the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, an exemption it granted in 2006 and 2010. The change caused quite a stir in the wireless community and even attracted the attention of the White House.

The Obama administration threw its support behind an Internet petition last spring that asked the Library of Congress to change its stance on the legality of smartphone unlocking. And the White House formally petitioned the FCC in September to require wireless carriers to unlock mobile devices on request.

Tom Wheeler, the FCC's new chairman, announced last month that he was urging the CTIA -- which was instrumental in getting the Library of Congress not to renew the exemption -- to allow the deal to go through.

"For eight months, the FCC staff has been working with CTIA on an amendment to your Consumer Code in which this industry would address consumers' rights to unlock their mobile wireless devices once their contracts are fulfilled," Wheeler wrote in a letter to the CTIA. "Enough time has passed, and it is now time for the industry to act voluntarily or for the FCC to regulate."

The deal was agreed to by AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, US Cellular, and Verizon Wireless. As far as the timeline for rollout, the CTIA wrote that the carriers will "move quickly to implement these principles, committing to implement three of these principles within three months and the remainder within 12 months."

Updated at 4:55 p.m. PT to say the deal has been reached. The story earlier stated the deal was close to being agreed upon.