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.