It seems there's been some renewed interest in the subject of Block C LTE "no locking" provisions after news that the Motorola RAZR will come equipped with a locked bootloader per Verizon's request. About four months ago, I published an article on this very topic. To summarize: Verizon can basically do almost anything it wants with handsets on its network in the name of reasonable network management - subject to a few limitations and caveats.

But before we get into the reasoning for this, let's talk history.

The Block C Auction Of 2008

Back in 2008, the FCC auctioned off a block of the 700MHz wireless spectrum dubbed "Block C." Verizon was the sole purchaser of the block, having bid $4.7 billion to acquire the chunk of spectrum. Prior to the auction, Google petitioned the FCC to include certain provisions requiring the purchaser of Block C, if the price was over $4.6 billion, to keep devices and traffic on that network open.

The FCC chose to adopt two of Google's proposed stipulations:

Open applications: Consumers should be able to download and utilize any software applications, content, or services they desire;

Open devices: Consumers should be able to utilize a handheld communications device with whatever wireless network they prefer;

Sounds good, right? When Verizon purchased the spectrum, it immediately sued the FCC because of its opposition to these provisions, but later dropped the suit for undisclosed reasons. Not until 2010 did Verizon even release a product (a mobile hotspot) which utilized this spectrum. The first phone to access this spectrum was the HTC ThunderBolt, released in March of this year.

When Verizon began blocking mobile tethering applications on its Android phones, particularly the ThunderBolt, earlier this year, a complaint was filed with the FCC by a consumer advocacy group, alleging Verizon was violating its duties under Block C - more precisely the "Open applications" provision. The FCC does not discuss what complaints it chooses to investigate, but we're pretty confident we know the outcome regardless. Why?

Reasonable Network Management: The Trump Card

Verizon's purchase of Block C came equipped with the same provision found in general FCC regulations of wireless mobile broadband services, which were enumerated in a rulemaking session last year.  Even though it is stated that carriers must provide open access to devices and software on the Block C network, those provisions are subject to the following exemption:

(b)(1) Insofar as such use [open access] would not be compliant with published technical standards reasonably necessary for the management or protection of the licensee’s network. 47 CFR §27.16

The FCC has continually recognized that mobile data networks present "special challenges" in terms of implementation and management. Whether those "challenges" are actually all that burdensome isn't at issue - the carriers obviously hold the position that they are. What constitutes "reasonable network management?" The FCC gave carriers significant leeway in this regard, and defined the term as follows in the Block C network access requirements:

(c)(1) Standards shall include technical requirements reasonably necessary for third parties to access a licensee’s network via devices or applications without causing objectionable interference to other spectrum users or jeopardizing network security. 47 CFR §27.16

Network security is Verizon's biggest loophole around the Block C openness requirements. Unlocking a device's bootloader allows the user to install any software on the device which is available, meaning the user may install software which the carrier has had no chance to review. Verizon could easily spin this to say that potentially harmful applications on such devices could be used to exploit vulnerabilities in its network, and/or to conceal a device's identity, or to steal service.

These assertions do need to be backed by standards, but the standards aren't hard to come by. Here's Verizon's CDMA security standards and best practices. If Verizon determines that allowing users to install "root access" level software, or custom operating systems, could in any significant way pose an obstacle to the secure management of its network as outlined in the standards, imposing restrictions would be reasonable network management. Such an obstacle could be the ability to obfuscate your device's identity, or to "steal" service (wireless tethering).

For example, if a model of phone on the Verizon network is known to have a major security flaw which could expose sensitive subscriber data, the company has an obligation to remedy that flaw once it is known. Rooted or unlocked devices, which may still have the flaw, may not be able to receive an OTA update from Verizon to correct it, because their software causes an incompatibility with the update. This would prevent Verizon from managing its network on some level. Once Verizon shows that it has a standard and that unlocking or rooting could cause users to go out of compliance with those standards, it merely needs to show that the standard is reasonable. If other industry members or organizations use similar standards, the standard is presumed to be reasonable. You can bet that all four major carriers use fairly similar network security standards.

Finally, we'll talk about tethering and Block C.

Much hoop-lah has been made of the following provision, as related to the legality of charging for wireless tethering on Verizon:

(c)(1)... The potential for excessive bandwidth demand alone shall not constitute grounds for denying, limiting or restricting access to the network. 47 CFR §27.16

The key issue is that this provision says nothing about limiting access on the basis of contractual obligations - it only applies when a carrier is limiting, restricting, or denying access to data services it has promised on the basis that a user is "congesting" the network. Verizon is still very much within its right to assert that it has the authority to prevent users from stealing access to a service it charges for, namely, tethering. Opponents say this is traffic discrimination and money-grabbing, Verizon says it's a perfectly legitimate usage-based access fee that it doesn't want users to circumvent.

There is absolutely nothing in the text of 27.16 suggesting carriers must provide unlimited data to users on networks operated on the 700MHz Block C frequencies. All (c)(1) is saying is that, once users have paid for a given service, carriers cannot discriminate against their traffic on the basis of bandwidth usage (eg, they can't throttle you) - but there's nothing to stop them from charging your more for using more. This is why Verizon's throttling only affects the top 5% of 3G, rather than 4G, users. I'm not sure if I explained that clearly, so I hope the distinction got across.

Of course, in matters involving regulatory authority, there's always going to be some wiggle room for discretion.

The FCC is unpredictable. There is no way to know if the agency will change its interpretation of its own rules, or if it will decide Verizon's particular actions aren't reasonable. This is all evaluated on a case by case basis. However, the agency's interpretation of reasonable network management in the past has tended to favor service providers in all but the most extreme cases (such as content-based throttling by Comcast), so it's hard for me to see them suddenly adopting a more demanding standard in regard to "reasonable network management."

To summarize: it seems highly unlikely that the current regulation of wireless network providers on Block C is worded strongly enough to force a carrier into selling unlockable handsets, but we'll have to wait and see to know for sure.

David Ruddock
David's phone is whatever is currently sitting on his desk. He is an avid writer, and enjoys playing devil's advocate in editorials, and reviewing the latest phones and gadgets. He also doesn't usually write such boring sentences.

  • jjrudey

    They better not lock the Galaxy Nexus bootloader.

    • BOOM!!@&

      As long as it isn't encrypted it will be easily cracked.

    • Nocturnhabeo

      I was under the impression that this was a developer phone... why the hell would you lock a developer phone that would break it completely...

  • BOOM!!@&

    But you are not really able to download any software that you want with the bootloaders being locked down. No custom kernels to me means I cannot download any software that I want.

  • sgtguthrie

    Good explanation of something I knew nothing about. Good read...thanks!

    • http://androidpolice jldleo

      i agree... I actually Learned something about this topic.

  • http://twitter.com/willsours will s

    I think your interpretation is incorrect, though I could be wrong as well. In my understanding, they don't have to SELL anything they don't want to. But they DO have to allow any compatible device to be able to work on their LTE network, as long as it doesn't present a security issue. So for instance, they could decide not to subsidize a Nexus phone, but Google could still sell it for full price with tethering built in and they would have to activate it. They also can't block VoiP, or tethering as far as I can tell at the network level. On the handsets (that they sell) since they control the firmware they can cut the tethering out all they want. The bootloader thing, they can do whatever they want, since they're subsidizing the device and you're buying it from them and you're signing their contract.

    I have a suspicion this is why pricing for the Nexus hasn't been announced... But we'll see.

    • Nocturnhabeo

      they announced it... kinda. 299 for on contract

  • Droosh

    The issue is the inconsistency. That they would allow one manufacturer like the Nexus to be unencrypted, but then forbid Motorola of providing an unlock code for the Razr which is available unlocked outside the US is questionable to say the least.

    How can they assert the exception clause in the same breath that they don't assert it for the Nexus?

    • http://androidpolice jldleo

      you have a valid question Droosh ..

  • John, Alabama

    In my opinion, based on this info, they aren't doing anything wrong with making you pay for a service. They are always going to win with enforcing the requirement for you to pay for what you use (tethering). They can't throttle the 4G network so we should count ourselves lucky.

    • Nocturnhabeo

      yeah but if they restrict you from rooting your phone so you can't get other things that you may want such as skins and ROMs because tethering is made possible seems a little extreme.

      P.S. sorry for the bad grammar

    • Droosh

      Tethering is not a service the carriers provide. It is native functionality of the OS and device. Verizon adds nothing to the equation.

  • anon

    Note that Comcast has a "protocol agnostic" network management policy yet they also keep a list of specific ports that they block (such as port 25 for suspected spam or bot activity). The funny part is that Comcast told me after they mistakenly blocked me that if I upgraded to a business account there would be no port blocking! So is it reasonable network management/security or a marketing scheme? I suspect it started out as a security mechanism and someone from the marketing department got wind of it.

    (Comcast also would not tell me why they blocked me in the first place. They said it didn't matter what their privacy policy says, I wasn't getting the information).

  • Topgun

    Easy solution, vote with your money. Leave VZW and go to somewhere where they do not do that IE Sprint. Sprint lets the phone makers decide to lock or not. See the whole HTC thing. There was such an outcry from the public HTC decided to unlock with Sprint staying quiet on the whole thing.

  • Mike

    It will be interesting to see if the unlocked phone market model ever gets big in America. It's huge everywhere else in the world, purchasing a phone unsubsidized and paying month to month for oyur service, not being loicked in (and not having a crap/bloatware locked down carrier altered phone).

    Fast forward two-three years when Verizon has the U.S. blanketed in LTE, AT&T and Sprint has theirs up and running as well, and Europe has gotten on the ball, too...

    LTE is a universal stnadard agreed to by many global providers, so your phone will eventually work everywhere...so buy unlocked/unsubsidized, pay for whatever level of service you want...and feel fee to abuse Verizon on data usage as they cannot throttle you.

    Think about it...even if you were paying the now "outrageous" $80 unlinited plan with an unlocked phone, you could still cancel your $50/month internet from your cable company/Fios, use your phone as a mobile hot spot for all your internet needs in the house and Verizon could not touch your bandwidth usage...

    Problem is, Americans LOVE subsidized phones...and then bitching about what they can't do with them after signing a contract that says they can't do those things they want to...

    • lol

      Lol this person thinks they have America all figured out. You know exactly what all Americans want lol. Your such a jack ass. If I could buy a phone and pay for it on a monthly basis and not be locked in a contract I think I fucking would. I think all of America would. I think no matter where you lived you would. Your def a closed minded asshole obviously by your post.

      • Mike

        Actually I live in NJ and you obviously have NO reading comprehension...lol

        I start out by saying it would be interesting to see if the unlocked model ever catches on in America in a few years once LTE is the norm everywhere...that's what intelligent people call a hypothesis.

        I then posit on the benefits of having an unlocked phone on an LTE network, but counter my assertaion with the fact that WE Americans tend to be a bunch of whiny bitches who love subsidized phones. And trust me, I met with my Verizon corporate reps at the Alcatel-Lucent headquarters in Murray Hill for an LTE demo a few months before they first launched it. I queried them about how once all carriers were on the LTE standard here that the carrier kind of becomes pointless as an unlocked 700 Mhz phone could work on any network...then then showed me their extensive poll research in all markets that Americans LOVE subsidized phones.

        So not so much close minded as extremely well informed...

        • sham wow

          If your American then your a commi because how you keep saying Americans. It's not what Americans want lol. We don't get to control what phone companies do here in America. What ever phone companies want to do then they will do it without careing what Americans want. At the end of the day we have only four choices really where we buy our phones. Those four companies all offer the same for the most part except for quality of service and a few different phones. What I'm saying is no matter what happens "Americans" as you call us will still buy the phones from those carriers. By what your saying your acting like its "Americans" fault we have "subsidized" phones. It's the carriers not "Americans" lol. The phone companies get to decide and they don't care what we want, they do what they want. What ever it is they do then we do. Wtf you want us to do boycott them and not buy any phones any more get real.

      • Erik

        I think you forgot an lol or two. You realize that you absolutely CAN buy a phone up front and pay for your cell service on a month to month basis with no contract....right?

        • Mike

          and what good is that right now? If I buy an unsubsidized Verizon phone I'm still stuck paying the same month to month price for data/voice service that the two year locked in person does. And where else can I use that phone?? Oh yeah..that's right..nowhere but on Verizon in the U.S.A.

          I'm talking UNLOCKED and UNSUBSIDIZED..big difference. Eventually, when all global carriers are on LTE, there will be unlocked LTE phones with radios contianing the frequencies utilized by those carriers...similar to what you see with unlocked/unsubsidized GSM phones currently. For example an unlocked and unsubsidized GSM phone can work on either TMobile or AT&T simply by sliding in the applicable SIM card. I can use that leverage to have those companies compete for my business (and can slap in local global SIM cards when travelling abroad for cheaper rates and not pay the exorbitant International fees carriers charge).

          Back to my very first post, one of the purposes of LTE is to get the world globally on one standard, and when that happens, there will be an unlocked and unsubsidized phones that I can slap any SIM card into and have it work on Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, T Mobile, Metro PCS Vodafone...whomever..and to the best of my knowledge, that phone DOES NOT exist at the moment.

          But when it does/should in 3-5 years, buying that phone for $600-800 will give you greater leverage in pricing for your data/vocie plans as if I'm unhappy with Verizons price, Im sure AT&T will gladly take my business...or vice versa.

          But market data shows that Americans are still unlikely to make that choce because they are adverse to paying that much for a phone up front and would rather have the locked subsidized one...then be the whiny bitches they are after the fact about how their carrier treats them...lol.

    • Whams

      Yes we are addicted to subsidies and then claim we own the phone. Ironic.

  • FknTwizted

    Maybe I wouldn't root if the manufactures would simply make theming, and better UIs or no ui at all... most if the manu's ui's really in my opinion nerf the living hell out of the phone... case in point. HTC thunderboly and samsung charge OEM is horrid CM7 makes them run like a champ... but yet HTC and sammie can't get their heads out of thier azzzes and fix the bugs. As for the tethering aspect I'm torn on one hand wtf i pay good money let me and on the other vzw wants to get paid I mean they shell out a butt load of money to provide an excellent service and coverage sorry money doesn't just grow on trees. If u look at it this way if ur on 4g and unlimited its only $30 more foe unlimited tether with them.

    • GotMoo

      My view is that I'm already paying for "unlimited data" on my line, and it really doesn't matter where that data ends up--Whether I stream music from the cloud or need to connect to my desktop at home using a bigger screen (laptop/tablet) because i'm in a pinch.

      Charging for tethering is akin to cable Internet providers charging customers extra because they are using a router in their house--"Wait, you're using more than one computer to attach to this big pipe!? we want more moneys!".

  • taylordd

    Isn't it nice to know that you, as a customer, despite paying out of the nose for service (and phones too; 300 bucks? sheesh) are still incredibly limited in what you can actually do on that network? Want to transfer as much data as your needs dictate? lol too bad, you are capped. want to make your phone look real purdy? After all, you paid 300 dollars for it. lol too bad, you can't do that because the company you pay over a thousand dollars a year to wants moar monies! want to transfer data anonymously? After all, nobody listens in on your phone calls or things of that nature. lol too bad, other giant companies want to make moar monies so they strong-arm other giant companies into divulging entirely private user information.


  • jim

    What's to say good ole unrevoked or someone else comes along and roots and unlocks the boot loader within a week or two of the device's release (like they almost always do). This whole issue becomes a moot point. I can't say for sure that would happen with the google nexus, but I'll hedge my bets on unrevoked or another group to have it unlocked before it's released publicly, or shortly thereafter.

  • ciamen

    The issue of security and network performance is a moot point by currently allowing unlocked and unlockable devices to operate on the network. You cannot allow one phone to be unlocked or come unlocked and then claim for the sake of security another phone has to be locked. The carriers already have the ability to monitor bandwidth consumption. If you were doing something illegal by sucking up a large amount of it you will be caught. This article was not well researched.

    • akhi216

      This. The defense of "we encrypt Motorola phones' bootloaders for network performance issues" is carries no weight whatsoever if you allow non-Motorola phones to not have encrypted bootloaders on the network. "We don't mind if our network security gets compromised by a Galaxy Nexus, we just don't want our network security compromised by a Motorola phone." WTF!? This playing favorites should not be able to be regarded as valid in a courtroom, but unfortunately Verizon has the option to pay for the outcome thanks to legal system which is in need of a serious overhaul. I'm willing to bet the heads of the FCC have slept in bed with Verizon's executives on these matters and many more.

  • i agree with sham wow

    I agree with everything sham wow said and that mike is retarded. And why mike do you keep saying "Americans" ... I think your a European living in America ...

    • Chinpokomon

      I happen to agree with Mike. We vote with our dollars. As long as consumers keep buying subsidized phones, we won't have as much influence over carriers. Standardization of GSM in Europe means greater freedom to consumers to choose their carriers, hence the service is better for the cost. This was initially at the expense of a less scaleable network.

      Now days, GSM is W-CDMA with a SIM card, so it has many of the same characteristics as more traditional CDMA carriers such as Verizon, and therefore also addressing some of the scaleability concerns. The exception being that as long as your phone supports a particular radio band, you can take your GSM phone from one carrier to another. CDMA using an ESN typically cannot be moved. In practice through, moving from one carrier to another was limited to AT&T to T-Mobile, or vice versa, and often at the expense of high speed data, which was incompatible between the systems; mostly because of the radio bands.

      LTE provides an opportunity for all the carriers to run on an inter-operable network, radio bands not withstanding. While tying yourself to one carrier with a cheap subsidized phone made sense for many consumers the past two decades, the pace of obsolescence and less competitive plans might mark a shift in how Americans generally purchase phones and carrier service. I've been buying unsubsidized for almost 3 years now, and I see no reason now for me to lock myself into carrier commitments.

  • Dan

    Your characterization of tethering is misleading. It is not a network service by any stretch of the imagination - it is an end user application that simply encapsulates an 3G or LTE payload into Ethernet frames and forwards them over WiFi or USB. To a layperson, this might seem like some magic service provided by Verizon, but it isn't - USB tethering apps are almost trivial to write for someone with a bit of networking knowledge.
    Thought experiment - if I use my phone to save the HTML code from some website onto my SD card, mount the SD card, and then move the file to my computer where I can open it with a browser, such is OK with Verizon. However, if I automate the process by wrapping 802.3 headers around the IP packets and send them to a network interface on my computer, why this is "illegal tethering?" It doesn't follow.
    Another thought experiment - Verizon charges $5.00 a month for it's "visual voicemail" app, the functionality of which Google Voice provides entirely free. Verizon could easily prevent Google voice from grabbing information from it's voicemail servers, so why don't they? It is basically the same thing - Google provides a free app that replaces one which Verizon charges for. Tethering apps are no different.
    It is my professional opinion that these restrictions on tethering are a violation of the 700MHz open application clause, and that the contract terms are unenforceable for the reasons described above.

  • firefighterguy

    But VZW uses the FCC's frequencies inwhich they monitor and enforce. Therefore VZW is under the FCC's regulations. They can do as they seem fit as a company. But they are subject to the FCC. Period. End of story.