​Will a cell phone unlocking law really matter?

Lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle pass a bill that will make unlocking a cell phone legal again. But will it really give consumers more choices?

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
4 min read

Mark Wilson, Getty Images

Republicans and Democrats in Washington have finally found an issue they can rally around: making cell phone unlocking legal again.

The big question is whether the new soon-to-be-law will actually do what politicians promise it will do, which is offer more consumer choices.

On Friday, the Republican-controlled US House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill that only a couple of weeks ago easily made it through the Democratic-controlled US Senate. The bill now only needs the signature of President Barack Obama, who whole-heartedly supports the measure, before it becomes law.

The new law once passed 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 outraged consumer advocates, and an online petition garnered some 114,322 signatures and won approval of President Obama. The bill, which will only make cell phone unlocking legal until the provision is reviewed again by the Library of Congress, has won bipartisan support mainly because politicians profess it will promote consumer choice, by allowing wireless subscribers to take their unlocked devices with them when they move to a new service provider.

In a statement on the We the People petition site, President Obama said that his "Administration called for allowing Americans to use their phones or mobile devices on any network they choose." He continued that it is important that that Congress "ensure copyright law does not undermine wireless competition."

He highlighted the work his administration has done with the Federal Communications Commission and the wireless industry to reach a voluntary agreement that helps restore this basic consumer freedom. He also highlighted that the bill he's expected to sign into law is "another step toward giving ordinary Americans more flexibility and choice, so that they can find a cell phone carrier that meets their needs and their budget."

But before wireless subscribers get too excited about the promise of taking their existing cell phones to any wireless operator, they need to realize that a law alone won't make this possible. There are still technical constraints that make it impossible for true device portability to work as the president and other politicians have described.

Benefits of new cell phone unlocking law may be deceiving

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. 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.

One reason is because voice services are not offered over the newer 4G LTE networks to most wireless customers. They are still delivered over the older GSM or CDMA networks.

The second reason is that 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.

Does anyone benefit?

There are indeed some consumers who benefit from unlocking cell phones. Mainly these are customer who travel abroad. With an unlocked GSM device, world travelers can pop in a SIM card to their device and avoid expensive roaming fees by using the service of a local carrier.

Even though the new law is an easy one to rally around, mainly because it has little to do with the spirit behind the copyright law, it's not likely to have a major effect on the industry since most wireless operators unlock devices when asked by their customers anyway. Each carrier has their own criteria for unlocking. Most require that customer fully own their devices and have been in good financial standing with the operator for a given period of time.

These requirements aren't going away as part of this bill either. Wireless operators are only required to unlock devices that a customer fully owns. 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. In many instances, the carrier won't.