New FCC chairman presses carriers to unlock cell phones

Tom Wheeler sends letter to CTIA urging carriers to unlock handsets once customer contracts are fulfilled.

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Tom Wheeler has been the FCC's chairman for only a few weeks, but he likely already gained a few fans by urging the wireless industry on Thursday to move toward unlocking consumers' cell phones.

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.

But the process became illegal earlier this year when 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.

Wheeler indicated during his Senate confirmation hearings in June that he opposed the ban and formalized his objection Thursday in a letter to Steve Largent, the president of the CTIA, an association that represents wireless carriers.

"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 his letter (PDF). "Enough time has passed, and it is now time for the industry to act voluntarily or for the FCC to regulate."

Wheeler wrote that the commission seeks a clear policy that would allow unlocking of devices within two business days of request at no extra charge once a contract has been fulfilled. It also wants a process for notifying customers when they are eligible for unlocking, as well as unlocking for military personnel upon deployment.

Scott Bergmann, the CTIA's vice president of regulatory affairs, responded to Wheeler's letter with this statement:

We look forward to continuing discussions under Chairman Wheeler's leadership and to ensuring consumers continue to benefit from the world-leading range of competitive devices and offerings. Today's U.S. consumers have a wide variety of unlocked devices and liberal carrier unlocking policies available to them. CTIA also continues to advocate for the passage of 'The Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act' (H.R. 1123), which would address consumer confusion about unlocking as a result of the 2012 decision of the Librarian of Congress. While CTIA supports giving consumers a robust set of options, it is important for consumers to note that an unlocked phone doesn't necessarily mean an interoperable phone, given the technological and engineering realities of wireless networks.

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