Unlock phones or we'll unlock them for you, FCC chair tells carriers

The chair of the Federal Communications Commission, Tom Wheeler, has called upon US carriers to unlock smart phones. 

Reuters
The FCC is asking carriers such as Verizon Wireless to unlock smartphones for consumers.

The chair of the Federal Communications CommissionTom Wheeler, is publicly calling for wireless carriers to unlock phones for American consumers. 

In a letter to Steve Largent, president and CEO of CTIA, an organization that represents the telecom industry, Mr. Wheeler wrote that it "is now time for the industry to act voluntarily or for the FCC to regulate." In other words, carriers can comply with the FCC request, or they can be forced by the FCC to do so. 

Wheeler called for a five-part policy that would do the following (the full draft of the letter is here): 

(a) provide a clear, concise, and readily accessible policy on unlocking; (b) unlock mobile wireless devices for customers, former customers, and legitimate owners when the applicable service contract, installment plan, or [early termination fee] has been fulfilled; (c) affirmatively notify customers when their devices are eligible for unlocking and/or automatically unlock devices when eligible, without an additional fee; (d) process unlocking requests or provide an explanation of denial within two business days; and (e) unlock devices for military personnel upon deployment. 

For consumers, the benefit of such a policy is clear. Let's say you've purchased an Apple iPhone 5S for $199, with a two-year contract through AT&T. Under the status quo, once that two-year contract has expired, you can renew your contract or let it lapse, but if you choose the former, you'll remain yoked to AT&T. Under the FCC proposal, post-contract, you'd have the ability to purchase voice and data plans from any of the carriers in the US. 

Unlocked phones amount, essentially, to choice. And in an interview with All Things D, Wheeler, who only took the chairmanship of the FCC this fall, said he hoped "to be the most effective advocate [American consumers] could hope for." 

The question now is how the CTIA will respond. Speaking to Ars Technica, a rep for the group said that it looked "forward to continuing discussions under Chairman Wheeler’s leadership," but stopped short of signaling whether it would comply with the FCC's proposal. 

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