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Cellphones Communications DRM Handhelds Your Rights Online

Starting This Week, Wireless Carriers Must Unlock Your Phone 100 writes Andrew Moore-Crispin reports that beginning today, as result of an agreement major wireless carriers made with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler in late 2013, wireless carriers in the US must unlock your phone as soon as a contract term is fulfilled if asked to do so unless a phone is connected in some way to an account that owes the carrier money. Carriers must also post unlocking policies on their websites (here are links for AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile), provide notice to customers when their devices are eligible for unlocking, respond to unlock requests within two business days, and unlock devices for deployed military personnel. So why unlock your phone? Unlocking a phone allows it to be used on any compatible network, regardless of carrier which could result in significant savings. Or you could go with an MVNO, stay on the same network, and pay much less for the same cellular service.
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Starting This Week, Wireless Carriers Must Unlock Your Phone

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  • by ledow ( 319597 ) on Thursday February 12, 2015 @05:23PM (#49041867) Homepage

    Welcome to the 90's, USA.

    I don't think I've ever had a phone on contract that couldn't be unlocked on demand after the initial period.

    • I always just paid for my phone up front. Unlocking was never an issue....
      • Unlocked Moto G or Moto E are fairly inexpensive and they're more than adequate for what they do. If I were to go off contract, that's what I would do. I currently have an HTC One M8 on contract so I can't unlock it now, but it's not an issue for me since I still have a Nexus 4 for international travel and as a general backup phone.

        • Seconded. For $180 unlocked no-contract, the 2nd gen moto g is the best there is (for now). And Motorola's service, support, and radio design are without peer. Google ownership was definitely a positive influence (we'll see about Lenovo).

          Not affiliated with Motorola; just in love with my G...

    • by Shakrai ( 717556 ) on Thursday February 12, 2015 @05:38PM (#49042023) Journal

      Nice American slam and you got FP to boot.

      If you're willing to consider facts instead of punchlines:

      T-Mobile: Always had a reasonable (90 days) unlock policy, which was and remains fairly well advertised.

      Verizon: Never really locked their phones to begin with, except for certain iPhone models, but that's an Apple issue and not a Verizon one. The Verizon phones that were "locked" always used 123456 or 000000 as the code, which was well documented in Verizon's T&Cs. The usefulness of unlocked IS-95/IS-2000 phones was somewhat questionable, though you could activate Verizon phones on Alltel and vice versa back in the day. I never tried it with US Cellular but I've heard anecdotes from people who did and were successful. In the LTE era Verizon has never locked any of their phones; virtually every Verizon branded LTE capable phone has the required GSM and WCDMA bands to operate globally, on any network, and they're SIM unlocked out of the box.

      AT&T/Cingular: Had a policy similar to T-Mobile back in the day, though they didn't advertise it and their CSRs weren't well trained on it. Finding someone to process the request was tedious but possible

      The big offender amongst the "big four" was Sprint. They've long had a fairly draconian policy but the damages resulting therefrom were insignificant before LTE came on the scene. Sprint's phones were only useful on Sprint's network, most of them lacked the bands to be useful on other CDMA networks, whereas Verizon and Alltel (before they got assimilated) had phones that were fully interoperable with one another. I used an Alltel branded RAZR on Verizon for many years without any issues.

      • Although your post is informative and accurate, I think you are slightly missing the whole picture of what the parent poster was trying to convey. As far as cellphone technology is concerned, the US is indeed in the 90's. Not just due to locking, but in many other different aspects as well.

        call price model:
        - the US is about the only country in the world where the recipient pays for incoming calls when not roaming. I leave it as an exercise to the read to think why this is plain ridiculous.
        - the prices are p

        • by gl4ss ( 559668 )

          1 GB is a joke.
          unlimited 3g (speed limited after 20gigs to 512kbit/s) is for sale in many euro countries for 10 bucks / month, so you were still getting ripped.

          in finland you have been able for years to go to a kiosk, buy a simcard with unlimited 3g for a month for 20 bucks and later 10 bucks / month.

          • Wow, so Finland rocks, apparently. The largest packages you can get here in Germany are 15-20€ per month for 5 gigs, and they limit you to GPRS speeds (64kbps!) when you hit that limit. And you usually can't pay for additional data, you really have to wait until the next month (unless you're on an expensive carrier such as Vodafone, but there you'll usually be paying more than 20€).

        • by Shakrai ( 717556 )

          the US is about the only country in the world where the recipient pays for incoming calls when not roaming. I leave it as an exercise to the read to think why this is plain ridiculous.

          Why is this "ridiculous?" The alternative is caller-pays, which is indeed how it works in the EU; it's one price to call a landline and another higher price to call a cell phone. That's kind of absurd in my eyes, why should someone have to pay extra to call me?

          the prices are plain crazy. In Europe you pay max 30-50 Euros per month for unlimited plan, with 1GB or data.

          It was actually less than that in Finland but this point I'll largely concede. Of course if I'm nitpicking I'll point out that virtually all American plans including texting and all of my Finnish friends have to pay extra for that. Consequently t

      • Don't know why you say it's an Apple issue because in Canada the iPhone has always been available unlocked from Apple the day they come out even when all of the carriers wouldn't sell you an unlocked phone.

  • Deployed military (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 12, 2015 @05:27PM (#49041921)
    Bummer, I deployed and made sure that my Sprint cell phone was unlocked prior to my deployment. I asked Apple and I asked Sprint, both verified that they were unlocked. ... Then Sprint sent an OTA update and locked it. When I called and complianed, they were a stone wall and absolutely refused to unlock my phone. Invoking the SCRA, I terminated my contract on my brand new iphone, took it to the store and sold it for $50 more than I paid for it. (wasn't expecting to actually make a profit on it). And signed up for another carrier that DIDN'T lock my phone. ... Problem solved. And I was even paid for my troubles. Of course, Sprint lost my family's business, so there's that.
  • Useless (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Ark42 ( 522144 ) <> on Thursday February 12, 2015 @05:28PM (#49041931) Homepage

    With the whole 2-year contract things, most people can basically never have their phone unlocked for international use until it's time to upgrade anyway. Locking phones should just be illegal to begin with. If you sign a contract saying you are going to pay for service for 2 years, you have to pay for that service (or pay an ETF) regardless of if your phone is locked or not.

    • Well it's better than nothing (so better than Canada), but of course I agree that phone locking should be outlawed. The society would end up saving as companies wouldn't need to process unlocking requests and no developer would ever have the shame of coding the locking feature of a phone again.
      • So just to be clear... "Well it's better than nothing (so better than Canada)" are you saying that Canadians cannot unlock their phones? If so then either you or I need to update our information because as I understand it we can now request our phone be unlocked after 90 days (in contract) or immediately if you purchase the phone outright. Of course there can be a charge for getting the phone unlocked, unfortunately. []

        • They charge about $50 to unlock a phone, which is ridiculous. We have always been able to unlock phones on ebay for $2-10 so having a new option for $50 doesn't change the game at all.
          • by mark-t ( 151149 )
            Your information is false. Carriers in Canada must unlock phones for free. The bill, C-343 if you want to look it up, was enacted into law in Canada in late 2011, and requires that consumers be informed of the existence of any SIM lock on a phone before the sale of such a phone is finalized or before any contract around the phone can be entered, and that the companies must unlock such phones, free of charge, upon request either when a consumer has purchased a phone outright, or else any contract they were
    • Buy better phones. Water, shock and dust proof.

      Curse the market for giving people choices you don't like. You can get a unlocked phone with international frequencies easy. You base American phone won't work on most overseas networks due to frequency lock downs. Which are apparently real hardware in almost all cases.

      • by Shakrai ( 717556 )

        You base American phone won't work on most overseas networks due to frequency lock downs.

        That's not really the case these days. Even in yesteryear it was only the case some of the time; every dumb flip phone I owned whilst on T-Mobile was a quad-band global phone. 850/900/1800/1900 GSM.

        Today it's SOP for American smartphones to include support for 900/1800 GSM and WCDMA, which makes them operable in most countries. Even the IS-95/IS-2000 (aka: CDMA) carriers have gotten on this bandwagon. My Moto X supports [] CDMA 850/1900, GSM 850/900/1800/1900, WCDMA 850/900/1900/2100, and LTE Bands 4 and

        • Well, LTE roaming could still be useful to you even if there are no roaming agreements. Just get a local SIM.

          • by Shakrai ( 717556 )

            True. Although I haven't found any pre-paid services in Finland that offer LTE. Not sure if that's the situation in most of Europe or just my favorite country; for me at least it makes the lack of EU LTE Bands in my device kind of a moot point. :)

            Besides, WCDMA goes up to 21mbit/s in ideal circumstances. Plenty fast enough for a phone. Last time I was in Turku I got faster speeds on WCDMA than my typical LTE speeds back home. Can you hear me now Verizon? You need more LTE capacity in my hometown. :D

    • Re:Useless (Score:4, Insightful)

      by SeaFox ( 739806 ) on Friday February 13, 2015 @02:39AM (#49045233)

      With the whole 2-year contract things, most people can basically never have their phone unlocked for international use until it's time to upgrade anyway.

      You say that like people have to upgrade their phone every two years. They could just, I dunno, be happy with what they have. Get a battery replacement if that's the issue you're having (mine personally last closer to 4-5 years). This whole need-to-upgrade thing is only a consumerism mentality.

      • by Threni ( 635302 )

        This is - or at least was - a tech site. I'm not alone in wanting a reasonably recent phone with a reasonably recent version of Android, and which is amongst the highest performing models, so that I have a sensible development target. A 5 year old Android phone would be a joke. You can're replace phone/tablet batteries (without taking it somewhere, paying, hoping they don't break it) on all models. Some companies ensure that older devices run newer versions of the software - if they run them at all - m

    • Locking phones should just be illegal to begin with. If you sign a contract saying you are going to pay for service for 2 years, you have to pay for that service (or pay an ETF) regardless of if your phone is locked or not.

      I agree 100%. I wonder what their collection rate on ETFs is. Seems like the carriers should be required to unlock their phones for anyone who asks as long as customer allows the carrier to hold their ETF in escrow until the contract is completed. For customers with good credit, they could even waive the escrow.

  • Does this apply to tablets/data-only devices as well?

    I have a PS Vita 3G that's just *dying* to get on a network that isn't AT&T.

    • Bit curious about the Apple SIM cards used in ipad air 2, are those MSL or Domestic SIM locked, and if so, what would be the point if they work with multiple providers?
    • by Ken Hall ( 40554 )

      Yeah, what's the situation with devices that were locked due to a contract between the manufacturer and carrier (like the PS Vita)? There never was a contract between me and AT&T for it, so do they have to unlock it? Up to now, they've refused to even disclose the terms of the agreement.

  • I have a Motorola Photon 4G (pre LTE) that was infamously scheduled to receive ICS but then Motorola backpedaled and abandoned it, *right after* the last OTA shipped that locked the bootloader--so essentially it's stuck at gingerbread while fully capable of running kitkat or lollipop (with a much better experience).

    It's not activated on my account to make calls anymore, but Sprint's system still sees it.

    It's a world phone with both cdma and a sim card for gsm--would be a great travel phone if I could unlock

    • by Shakrai ( 717556 )

      It's a world phone with both cdma and a sim card for gsm--would be a great travel phone if I could unlock it.

      That's any Verizon 4G LTE smartphone. If you're looking for something like that I'd personally recommend the Moto X Developer Edition (discontinued but available on eBay) or the Nexus 6. Those are totally unlocked, both SIM unlocked (use them with any network) and bootloader unlocked (use whatever software you want) If those are too expensive you could use almost any Verizon 4G smartphone, although you'll forgo the unlocked bootloader in many instances.

      I plan on investing in a local SIM to use with my x

      • I already have a Nexus 5--I'm not looking for a new phone--just want to make my old Photon 4G useful again. Recycle value last I checked was a whopping $17 because of this. It's got 2 1GHz cores and 8GB memory--it's still decent hardware. Shame to be deprecated so early.

  • At what cost? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by zentigger ( 203922 ) on Thursday February 12, 2015 @05:39PM (#49042033) Homepage

    There is nothing in there stating that the carriers must unlock the device free of charge. We got burned by the same sad lack of foresight in Canada: The carrier must unlock your device, and they will actually do it right on the phone with you in most cases, but not until you have paid the $75 fee!

    • Same in the UK (although IIRC, on regulations mandated by the EU). T-Mobile hit me with a £15 fee to unlock my phone, which was already out-of-contract.

    • by mark-t ( 151149 )
      Your information is grossly out of date. For over the past 4 years now, all carriers in Canada must unlock a cell phone that has been fully paid for upon request free of charge. Bill C343, look it up.
      • by jbr439 ( 214107 )

        Bill C-343 was introduced but never passed AFAICT. Hence, Canadian carriers are still free to charge ridiculously high fees to unlock the crippled cell phone that they sold you.

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna ( 970587 ) on Thursday February 12, 2015 @05:45PM (#49042079) Journal
    Why shouldn't we require them to unlock it at the preset time, on preset conditions. 2 year contract, paid up, unlock the phone.

    Did you guys know that Samsung's EULA actually allows it to push ads at odd times of the night, ring you and make you look at the ads? In fact it has the right to put you call on hold and make you listen to an ad for 15 seconds once in 3 minutes. And finally the government wheels have started moving against locking the phone. By the time they understand Samsung's smart-tv/smart-phone pushed ad model, we all would by dead ...

    • Why should they even need to lock the phone if they have a contract? That allows then to legally extract any money you owe them whether or not you use the service. If you don't use their service you're actually reducing their costs.

    • by mark-t ( 151149 )

      Why in the world is the above completely baseless comment modded as informative?

      Interesting, maybe... but in the same sense that anything which might be different can be interesting.

      That doesn't make it true, however. I'd dare say that the above poster cannot cite any reliable sources that actually back up what he was saying. I'd be admittedly curious to know where he had heard it, however.

  • by LaughingRadish ( 2694765 ) on Thursday February 12, 2015 @06:03PM (#49042241) Journal

    This is nice, but there's still a problem with carriers locking the bootloader on smartphones. This means one cannot easily or reliably change the OS to something more suitable. I'd like to install CyanogenMod on my phone, but I learned after I got it that my carrier locks the bootloader.

    • by mlts ( 1038732 )

      The problem is that some phones get useful, permanent mods, such as the HTC One X, or the HTC One M8. Others start out as locked, such as the Moto X or the Motorola CLIQ, but eventually are easily updated. Still others never really get completely unlocked, such as the Motorola Atrix 2.

      My next phone, I'll probably just place my bets on HTC, since I've had good luck with their products. Maybe LG is decent, but I've yet to research their stuff.

      Motorola and Samsung? They can keep their expertly locked bootl

      • An absolute requirement for me is a phone with an SD card slot. After I realized my phone has a bootloader lock, I tried to find one with an SD slot AND unlocked bootloader. I couldn't find one. It seems the HTC One M8 and Motorola Atrix 2 seem to fulfil my requirements. Thanks.

        • by mlts ( 1038732 )

          The Atrix 2 has a locked bootloader, and is several years old. I'd go for the M8, but HTC should be releasing the next flagship phone in 4-8 weeks.

  • by damnbunni ( 1215350 ) on Thursday February 12, 2015 @06:11PM (#49042309) Journal

    Before switching from a prepaid carrier to an MVNO, make sure you read the MVNO's plan closely.

    Some don't allow roaming at all, or only allow a minimal amount (like say, 25 megs of data). Some don't allow tethering/hotspot use, or charge an extra fee for it. Some shut off data when you hit the cap instead of throttling.

    You can save money with an MVNO, but make sure you're actually getting the services you need.

  • There’s always a gotcha. These new rules are effective going forward so carriers could argue that only phones launched commercially after this date should be subject. Also, the rules were put together and agreed upon by the CTIA, formerly the Communication Telecommunication Industry Alliance, i.e. the carriers and a few other corporations. It feels a bit like the foxes watching the chicken coop.

  • How will this work for the likes of Tracfone and subsidiaries? There is never really a debt to begin with.
  • by aussersterne ( 212916 ) on Thursday February 12, 2015 @07:26PM (#49043037) Homepage

    in the first place?

    There are some FABULOUS devices coming out of China these days, readily available on eBay and Amazon, with high specs, Android KitKat or Lollipop, and sold at half the price or less vs. offerings from the carriers.

    Just got a Huawei Honor X1 and am using it with an MVNO in the US. The retail price of the new off-contract phone from China, purchased on eBay, was about what the two-year on-contract retail price of a similarly specced Android device is in the U.S. The MVNO contract, with "unlimited" data (throttling to HSPA+ after the first several GB every month) is less than half the price of a similar contract at a major carrier.

    There's no reason to buy on-contract phones any longer.

    • Because everyone talks about the great plans you can get if you bring your own phone but no one provides any examples. I can't find a BYOP plan that is sufficiently cheaper than my current plan to even make a dent in the cost of the phone so I'd actually be losing money.

      I'm willing to believe that these plans exist. Why won't someone provide some evidence?

      • Try NET10. If you got in last year, you could get 2GB + throttling to 3g HSPA unlimited everything for $40/mo., month-by-month (no contract).

        New signups right now get 3GB + throttling to 64kbps unlimited everything for $45/mo., month-by-month (no contract).

        AT&T's 2-year contact for 3GB is currently $80/mo.

        NET10 GSM plans use the AT&T network, so the coverage is the same and the phone compatibility is the same.

        • First, thank you for actually providing examples!

          Second, unfortunately they're not worth it.
          I am currently paying $63/month to AT&T including taxes and fees and a subsidized iPhone 5s for unlimited LTE and more minutes than I ever use.

          The subsidy is $450 and the contract term is 20 months, so that's $22.50 overhead for the subsidy.

          I'd break even on a plan for $40.50/month with unlimited LTE, but I should allow a bit more since I would be gaining the convenience of an unlocked phone.

    • Because Huawei is a piece of junk? You'll find out soon enough. I have a Xiaomi and I can't wait for the two years to finish so I can justify buying a new phone to myself. Major brands are major brands for a reason.

      PS stop starting comments in the Subject: line, it disrupts the flow of your message.

    • by antdude ( 79039 )

      But are they iOS compatible? Many families, relatives, and asian friends use iOS devices. :/

  • Don't even think that you are getting the same quality of service with prepaid (MVNO) operators Large carriers have roaming agreement with each other and independent tower operators. With MVNOs you are getting only the basic service from the core network. My wife uses a PagePlus phone- it can't compare in coverage with a proper Verizon postpaid phone.
  • I'd be much more thrilled if CDMA was banned, or rather the hardware mandated to be SIM-based, rather than incorporating the entire handset, ala Verizon.
  • The American market can enjoy this because of the nanny state. Thanks, big government! Fuck you, free market!

If I have not seen so far it is because I stood in giant's footsteps.