Earlier this year, the Librarian of Congress – who, in the past, has outlined exemptions in copyright laws like the DMCA – surprised pretty much everyone this year when it was decided that unlocking your cell phone was illegal. Illegal, anyway, without the express permission of your cell phone carrier.
Getting that permission was where the system really fell apart. While most major carriers have had unlocking policies in place for some time, the burden was on the consumer, not the carrier or manufacturer, to see the process through. And sometimes carriers simply refused to unlock phones, regardless of where a person was along their contract, or if they’d purchased a locked phone on the used market.
Sometimes, carriers charged high fees which serve no purpose other than to dissuade users from seeking to have their phones unlocked at all.
With this new partnership between carriers and the FCC, however, some of that confusion will be a thing of the past.
Reportedly, the agreement includes protocols for consumers to inquire about unlocking eligibility via SMS, and allow for the unlocking of pre-paid phones, as well. Perhaps most importantly, wireless customers will be able to get an answer from their carrier – whether the unlock request was approved or denied – within two business days of when the request was first made.
Users who buy a locked phone on contract will be able to get that phone unlocked, guaranteed, at the end of their contract.
Some things are still up in the air; things like, Reuters says, keeping “unlocked phones off of black markets.” It’s difficult to determine what that means in the context of what could become an even more vibrant used cell phone market here in the U.S. Also missing from the agreement seems to be the rights of customers to unlock phones that never hit an official end of contract date (especially with many carriers offering early upgrades if you re-sign your contract every 12-18 months).
The market has already started to shift in the U.S., with many carriers offering at least a few models of cell phones which come unlocked – especially Verizon – and with other phones coming unlocked by default (such as Google’s Nexus 5, and Apple’s iPhone, when purchased at full price).