Yesterday, the CTIA (America's wireless carrier consortium / trade group) and the FCC announced that they'd come to an agreement on network unlocking of cell phones. Hooray! So, we're all getting unlocked phones from here on out, right? Obviously not - the CTIA has no interest in giving you that much freedom, so instead it's released a plodding, incremental evolution of most carriers' existing device unlock policies to satisfy people in Washington who apparently don't really understand the absurdity of network locking in the first place.

Under the new "rules," carriers subscribe to six basic obligations. Here they are, simplified and bulleted:

  • Somewhere on their respective websites, carriers have to post an unlocking policy.
  • Postpaid unlocking (eg, on a contract or device repayment plan) must be allowed if the contract period is over, an ETF has been paid, or device repayment completed.
  • Prepaid devices must be unlockable one year from the date of purchase, with some ambiguous crap about this being subject to "reasonable time, payment, or usage requirements" (eg if the phone's been sitting in a drawer, they don't have to unlock it).
  • Carriers have to tell you when your phone can be unlocked, or just automatically unlock them. If you're not a subscriber or former subscriber to the network of the phone you want to unlock, carriers can charge you for unlocking.
  • Carriers have 48 hours to unlock your phone after you request it be unlocked (if it can be)... unless they need more time (yes, really).
  • If you're deployed military personnel, you can unlock your phone at any time.

Oh, and the carriers have a full year to "implement" these policies.

Great, so now we have all these rules carriers can fall back on and proceed to largely do what they've already been doing to mobile subscribers already: making them waitAnd for no good reason. And let's not ignore the rather intentional omission of unlock policies for devices bought at full MSRP on postpaid service, which the CTIA doesn't deem as requiring any oversight (to be fair, some carriers like AT&T let you do it after 60 days).

There are two reasons these arbitrary unlock restrictions exist: one, to protect carrier roaming profits, and two, to stop delinquent bill-payers from buying a subsidized phone and then jetting to a prepaid plan. For example, if I were to buy an HTC One on AT&T tomorrow on a new account for $100, then unlock it and cancel my service and go to Straight Talk (and go delinquent on the ETF bill) or sell the phone, AT&T would have to send me into collections, and wouldn't have the leverage of the phone not working on other carriers to get me to pay. This is a fair enough point.

As far as roaming, if I go to Canada next week and need data service, but all I have is my locked AT&T phone, guess what: I have to find some Wi-Fi or pay up to Ma' Bell for some absurdly overpriced international data package. Allowing me to unlock my phone would mean I could go buy a prepaid SIM, pay for a month's worth of service, and avoid lining AT&T's pockets with hefty roaming charges.

They can moan and cry about preserving the "customer experience" and the non-existent "cost" of unlocking phones, but it's all bullshit, and we all know it is. The FCC should be ashamed for even pretending to play this game with multi-billion dollar corporations, corporations acting only out of an interest in preserving a profit vector. This is all just political ego-stroking - the FCC gets to say they "cracked down" on restrictive carrier unlocking policies, and the CTIA commits to "a more open" wireless ecosystem.

Consumers, meanwhile, get next to nothing more in terms of right to control of their devices. They get more clarity on what exactly their carrier's crappy unlock policy is, but this is not remotely far enough. As subscribers, we should be demanding much more - the US is one of the only countries in the world where network locking of devices is the norm.

First, it should be illegal to sell a no-contract smartphone that is locked to a specific wireless carrier (through software locking, not by design, of course). If I walk into T-Mobile and a buy a Note 3 today at full price, they should take it out of the box and unlock it for me right then and there. If I get it from a 3rd party retailer, an unlock code should be included on the receipt. There is zero reason to impose network locks on full-MSRP handsets. It's just about roaming profits - nothing else.

Second, if I have an on-contract device or have financed my phone, and my contract is up (or I paid my ETF) or my repayment on the phone completed, carriers should be required to have an automated online interface for instantly unlocking handsets which are eligible for it. There should be zero human interaction required to accomplish this. It is not difficult. It does not require a customer service rep, it does not need 48 hours. I do not need to be or have been a customer. This is just hiding the ball. I'm sure the CTIA has the cash lying around to develop a simple web interface and backend all the carriers and OEM partners can use. It's not rocket science.

That's it - there need be no other rules. I'm sick and tired of hearing carrier excuses about phone unlocking in the United States - it's simply laziness and greed. The new policies are just a bunch of feel-goody spew from the CTIA and FCC, and it's time consumers stopped getting screwed.

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.

  • Dan Carter

    Hahaha props on the image choice. We need that in a gif asap.

  • Zak Taccardi

    Yeah - I am pretty disappointed by the FCC here.

    I am a T-Mobile Nexus 5 user though, so I already have that freedom

  • Simon Belmont

    Nice piece, David. I wholeheartedly agree.

    The CTIA / FCC announcement is nothing more than posturing. The end user doesn't get much out of the deal at all.

  • mostlydigital

    With every cellular provider using a different technology/frequency combination the whole point is moot. What happens when manufacturer "A" or manufacturer "S" offers a phone to provider "V" and says, "This phone will operate on every North American system." Well, maybe manufacturer "A" isn't a good example. But when "S" or "H" says that they have a phone that operates with any provider, it's going to be rejected because it endangers the install base. (Potentially offers a choice to the customer.) Lets see what happens when LTE enhanced rolls out and the technologies start to merge. The current situation is all the fault of the FCC that mandated a system where innovation (read technical exclusivity) would fracture the American market and make it a suppliers' game.

    • Irinel Loghin

      When the LTE-Advance will show up, it's going to be the same. Do you want to know why? It's mainly because of sprint and Verizon.
      In their system, (as in the actual billing system, the one the reps use) you'll need the MEID of the phone you want to activate (since it's a gsm network - take the old SIM card out, put the new one in). Here's the catch. Both sprint and Verizon have a big database with all of the MEIDs, and from the red's end, the system will tell them : this is not a sprint phone, cannot be activated.
      It's the same thing like activating a boost phone on the sprint network. They have to make money somehow :)

  • motoridersd

    I could not agree more. Don't all T-Mobile devices come unlocked when paid in full? I know the Moto X does, but this is when purchased directly from Motorola. Samsung seems to be guilty of locking their phones in annoying ways, like region locks. Probably at the request of carriers, but I'm glad other manufacturers don't do this.

    And what about exclusivity agreements? I would have happily owned a Lumia if AT&T had not had the asinine policy of not unlocking it, even after paying full MSRP on it and NOT having a contract. These new rules obviously do nothing to help with that either.

    • jonathan3579

      No sadly, T-Mobile branded devices do not come unlocked whether they're financed or paid in full. (They want the unlock code to be requested and provided by them.)

      • http://www.androidpolice.com/author/pamela-hill/ Pamela Hill

        Wait, what? Aren't they the "uncarrier" now? There are no more subsidies - every phone they sell now is full price. So are you saying that T-Mobile makes people pay full price AND locks the phones? I find that hard to believe.

        • jonathan3579

          You're correct on all points. However, that hasn't stopped them from locking their devices down tight. Their unlocking procedures have even been heavily criticized when changed August. The new changes include:
          40 days active service required for prepaid, this changes from 60 days and better aligns with the post-paid unlock policy
          2 unlocks per year, per line of service, this changes from 90 days and is likely being changed to fall in line with JUMP!
          International exception still includes customers having two full months of monthly recurring charges (MRC) + EIP payments

          • http://www.androidpolice.com/author/pamela-hill/ Pamela Hill

            They're damn lucky they have low rates. (And great customer service, in my experience.)

  • Turo

    What about the scenario where a prepaid customer has been with the same carrier for 2 or more years. All the time using unlocked phones but then buys a locked phone at full retail. Would that customer have to wait 1 more year to unlock that phone? That's the way it seems.

    • Irinel Loghin

      It seems that way BECAUSE THAT'S HOW IT ACTUALLY IS.

  • jonathan3579

    Thank you! I've seen too many sites glorifying this topic like it's a good thing but in reality, it changes little to nothing.

  • Matthew Fry

    Everything looks like an incremental improvement except "Prepaid devices must be unlockable one year from the date of purchase?" I want them to give a logical reason for this. If you buy a phone "the old fashioned way" what right does the carrier have to force you to use their service?

    • http://www.LOVEanon.org/ Michael Oghia (Ogie)

      WHOA, whoa, whoa, Matthew... don't throw out the L word. Logic is scary and confusing to them.

  • duse

    No reason to choose to subject yourself to this....just only buy unlocked devices and take it to whatever service you wish. You CAN do it, so why choose to play ball with this bullshit?

    Buy a Nexus, or a dev edition One/Moto X/etc. Or an unlocked iPhone.
    Use it with prepaid service.
    If prepaid does not suit your needs, use it with postpaid.
    Many people will say "but then I don't get a discount on my line, even though I paid full price on the phone." Okay, so buy a subsidized iPhone for $200, sell it for $500-600, pocket the money, and keep using the unlocked device you bought for yourself.

    It's not hard. If you don't like how it works, vote with your wallet and go another route.

    • http://www.LOVEanon.org/ Michael Oghia (Ogie)

      Exactly. There's really no practical reason for not buying a cheaper unlocked phone (e.g, Nexus). Unless you want to look "cool" and get an iPhone.

    • guyladouche

      I agree; and I've stopped getting subsidized phones--but another item of inequality/unfairness exists; people who buy their own devices (unsubsidized) aren't getting service plan discounts since they're not getting a provider-subsidized phone. You pay the same (absurdly high) monthly rates as the people who are getting subsidized devices. My point is the cell phone industry needs to change, and hardware should be completely decoupled from service contracts and prices. People should also get used to buying devices full-price.

      • duse

        You're right it needs to change; however, I did provide two options to get a "discount" on your service when buying phones full price: use cheaper prepaid, or buy a subsidized phone that you don't plan to use and sell it. You should definitely be doing one or the other of these if you're buying full price phones in the US.

        • guyladouche

          Right; but if you buy a subsidized phone just to sell it, you're locked into another 1- or 2-year contract, and that phone won't be unlocked (so you can only sell it to someone else on the same network). Defeats the purpose of having an unlocked phone where you can easily go from provider-to-provider for the best coverage/service/CS options.

          • duse

            I agree, I was just providing a way to get a "discount" on your service even when buying a phone full-price. If you want cheaper service AND no contract, prepaid is what you want. And with options like Straight Talk and T-Mobile out there, it's what I recommend.

  • http://androidandme.com/ Taylor Wimberly

    Or just buy an unlocked phone...

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/author/eric-ravenscraft/ Eric Ravenscraft

      "Haha, you bought a phone for full price with no contract on a domestic carrier and were unable to foresee an out-of-country trip nine months later. YOU ARE SUCH A RETARD AND DESERVE ALL THE SUFFERING YOU GET." -- Taylor Wimberly

      • http://androidandme.com/ Taylor Wimberly

        I also oppose locked phones, but I don't think they should be illegal. Consumers can vote with their wallets, and many already have. The options for unlocked phones has increased like crazy in the last 2 years.

        • http://www.androidpolice.com/author/eric-ravenscraft/ Eric Ravenscraft

          "Consumers, you have a choice: either buy an unlocked Nexus, as per Lord Duarte's edicts, and use that most holy carrier T-Mobile, and in doing so participate in the great democracy of capitalism, or shackle yourself to the burdens of locked phones. One path leads you to freedom. Freedom from locked phones. Freedom from carrier bonds. Freedom from usable cell service, for most of you. The other path leads to destruction, trading your principles and immortal soul for trinkets like 'a phone that actually works' or 'data speeds exceeding 0.5Mbps' or 'a cheaper phone because I'm paying the same price on contract so why the fuck would I pay more just to prove to someone on the internet that I can?'. I ask you, good and faithful consumers: is it truly worth it?" -- Taylor Wimberly, Good Speech Giver

          • http://androidandme.com/ Taylor Wimberly

            You have a great imagination!

          • http://bertelking.com/ Bertel King, Jr.

            "Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!" - Former Verizon customer.

          • http://androidandme.com/ Taylor Wimberly

            Haha, I actually wrote something similar to that when I left Verizon and paid my ETF.

  • AyexeM

    So, is this proposed regulation? Or this is going to happen? Will there be a public comment period? Is there anything we can do as citizens to fight this decision ?

    • NeedName

      The FCC told the carriers to come to their own *voluntary* practice or they would set rules, thus the carriers came up with this junk. . .

  • cabbiebot


  • NeedName

    Let us NOT forget who the new FCC chairman is and where is came from!

    Did anyone actually think he would work in favor of the citizens? It's just more US corp-gov in action.

  • A_Noyd

    I think this is a bit of over reaction. How many people buy their phone from one carrier, and plan on moving it to another? The carriers did subsidize the phone, so they should at least get their money back out of it. As for the AT&T roaming in Canada example, that's not a very good one. AT&T just signed a deal with Rogers to cover roaming there.

    Now as far as buying an exclusive phone at full price, then wanting it unlocked, I agree, that's B.S. I guess in that case, find, and buy an unlocked one. That's what I did back in the day when I wanted an HTC HD2, and they were exclusive to T-Mobile in the U.S.

    • Dee

      OVER REACTION! Think about this. I walked into Wally World a few month's back. I purchased a pre-paid cell phone for about $80 dollars, full price. It has both AT&T & T-Mobile bands in it, but it is locked to one network. I have a phone plan with a MVNO who uses the same LOCKED TO bands of the phone, so I simply insert my sim card into the phone and am using it to this date. UNDER THE PROPOSED RULES, the carrrier who is selling the phone continues to not unlock the phone because I have never activated the sim card that came with the phone. Current policy is to activate the sim that came with the phone for a period of time and they will then unlock it. Proposed plan remains the same. Why do I have to pay them for X amount of cell service before they will unlock a phone in which I paid full price. If I wan't to move to a MVNO plan on the other carrier, I cannot because the current carrier will not unlock the phone til I first activate the sim card that came with the phone, for X amount of months. As far as they are concerned, the phone has not been activated yet.

      • A_Noyd

        Wait, you went to an amusement park in a National Lampoon movie to buy a phone? No wonder you got ripped off! I hope you at least got to ride the roller coaster at gun point.

        "I walked into Wally World a few month's back. I purchased a pre-paid cell phone for about $80 dollars, full price"

        • Dee

          The point is, I purchased a phone for full price that has multiple radio bands in it. I should not be held hostage to a carrier simply because I chose to not activate the sim card of a phone that I paid full price for. Even if it only cost me $80 dollars. Surely you can understand this.

  • master94

    Correct me if I'm wrong but don't Verizon LTE phones come pre-unlocked, as per the agreement they signed back in 09 for buying all that spectrum? Why do all the other carriers want to fight so much when even verizon failed to keep it's network locked up. The consumer will always get his way. Carries can suck it

  • EH101

    Do away with contracts completely. Make plan prices reasonable and require customers to bring their own phones. If they want to buy it from the carrier: full price. They want it subsidized/financed? Credit cards(As an example) do just that. (Defer actual payment) Best part? All phones come unlocked with all GSM/CDMA/LTE bands for the region.

    No reason any of this couldn't be done, except that our polititions are allowed to get paid (bribed) for laws.

  • kmash

    I've a stupid question, can I still unlock by third party means and still not get in trouble, for instance I travel overseas a lot and I was thinking of unlocking my Note 3 but will still be with AT&T,

  • Irinel Loghin

    Actually, the system itself is terribly wrong in the US. Civilized countries (as in Europe) do it this way:
    1. You want the S4? OK, no problem. You'll pay around $400 for the phone, and your plan is, let's say $100/mo
    2. You want the S4 and don't have cash? OK, no problem. You don't pay anything now, and your plan for the next 24 months is gonna be $150... (same plan as above, the difference comes because the phone is included in the monthly plan).
    3. You want the S4 and you can pay it upfront? Sure. The plan will be $50. - phone comes unlocked 95% of the carriers.
    You want to have your phone unlocked on your own? OK, go ahead. We're not going to sue you over it, since we don't actually care. Anyways you're paying for the phone in the next months. You want to use our phone on a different carrier? OK. See the Rule above. We won't sue you for unlocking the phone. We'll just sue you if you don't pay the bill. Nice and elegant.

    *the prices above are for example purposes only :)

  • http://www.LOVEanon.org/ Michael Oghia (Ogie)

    Mad props for being real David:

    "They can moan and cry about preserving the "customer experience" and the
    non-existent "cost" of unlocking phones, but it's all bullshit, and we
    all know it is."

  • Primalxconvoy

    It's still better than in Japan. As far as I know, only Docomo allows new phones to be unlocked and you have to pay them 3,000 yen for the privilege. They won't provide the unlock code, but will unlock the phone for free any time afterwards if it gets reset.

  • Mehmet F.

    I am in Turkey and operators cannot lock their phones, it is illegal.

  • Boris

    "If you're deployed military personnel, you can unlock your phone at any time."

    Catering to the welfare queens I see...

  • Irked Consumer

    I bought an "unlocked" iPhone at retail price from T-Mobile and tried their monthly no-contract plan. Apple subsequently replaced the phone during a store visit for tech support. T-Mobile coverage was not good so I switched to AT&T's no contract plan and ported the number. It turns out the phone was locked. AT&T told me to take it to Apple, who told me to take it to T-Mobile - and then T-Mobile initially told me they could not unlock the phone because I was no longer a subscriber. So basically after a few hours of wasting my time with these three companies I escalated to someone at T-Mobile to unlock the phone. They sent me "unlock instructions" 48 hours later by e-mail and then that message said to wait 72 hours before it would actually work. Five days without service over this unnecessary, concocted lock mechanism. Even if you pay retail, these jerks still lock your phone. The lesson learned is to stick with Nexus and the hell with Apple phones. I had been exclusively an Apple product user since 2001 but now use Nexus phones and tablets.

  • WholeHearted

    I'm confused. I just bought a factory-unlocked Android quad-band GSM phone, and I want to get a no-contract plan for talk, text, and data. I'm considering signing on with Metro PCS (recently bought by T-Mobile). They state they'll lock my phone for 3 months but then will be willing to unlock it on request. Is there any no-contract carrier out there that won't lock my phone at all?