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US carriers, you'll have to unlock those phones

Starting today, it will be much easier for people to jump from one carrier to another and take their smartphone with them.

Want to take your HTC One M8 or Galaxy S5 to a different carrier? That just got easier. Josh Miller/CNET

The days of carriers locking down devices to keep customers in place are officially dead.

Starting Wednesday, all US carriers must comply with requests from postpaid and prepaid customers to unlock their devices, as long as certain parameters are met. The rules officially came down in 2013 and the industry group CTIA committed last year to have all wireless carriers adhering to the regulation by February 11, 2015.

The debate over phone unlocking has come a long way in just a few short years. Unlocking a phone allows owners to put the device on whatever carrier network they choose. For years, carriers have locked down devices, allowing them only to connect to their own networks. The move was designed to keep customers close and not see them stray to other carriers.

"We are pleased the FCC acknowledged the participating wireless carriers met the deadlines to unlock their customers' devices per the Consumer Code for Wireless Service," said Scott Bergmann, the CTIA's vice president for regulatory affairs, in a statement. "We also remind consumers than an unlocked device does not necessarily mean an interoperable one since different carriers use different technologies and spectrum bands."

For customers, the inability to unlock handsets had been a nuisance. Many consumers have desired taking a smartphone from one carrier's network and running it on a compatible alternative without needing to buy a new device. An unlocked handset would allow that interchange between, say, AT&T and T-Mobile networks. Locked devices force customers to stick with their carrier networks and if they decide to switch, buy a new device on the other carrier.

In 2013, the issue of unlocking hitting a tipping point when the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) banned American consumers from unlocking their devices without the consent of their carriers. Critics quickly took issue with the ruling, which actually came down in 2012, but went into effect in 2013. After months of criticism, President Obama in 2013 signed into law the "Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act," which effectively made unlocking legal again.

Under the regulations that went into effect on Wednesday, carriers will have no choice but to remove locks on devices owned by both postpaid and prepaid wireless users. On the postpaid side, carriers must unlock devices after a customer in good standing has fulfilled "postpaid service contract, device financing plan, or payment of applicable early termination fee." In other words, postpaid subscribers who get smartphones for less by paying a subsidy at the beginning and paying in full over the life of a contract, must have satisfied that payment covenant before they can be allowed to unlock their device.

On the prepaid side, things are bit simpler: carriers must, upon request, unlock a handset "no later than one year after initial activation."

All unlocking, regardless of the type of customer, must be completed within two days of a request, and carriers are now required to inform consumers of their policies.

"Carriers that lock devices will clearly notify customers that their devices are eligible for unlocking at the time when their devices are eligible for unlocking or automatically unlock devices remotely when devices are eligible for unlocking, without additional fee," the regulation reads. "Carriers reserve the right to charge non-customers/non-former-customers with a reasonable fee for unlocking requests. Notice to prepaid customers may occur at point of sale, at the time of eligibility, or through a clear and concise statement of policy on the carrier's website."