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Wireless carriers aren't complying with cellphone unlocking agreement

The FCC is celebrating wireless carriers for changing course on cellphone unlocking. But are they really?

unlocked gate
Credit: Tripp

Update 2/19/2015: T-Mobile has defended its cellphone unlocking policies, saying in a statement to Network World that its policies are "in 100% compliance with the CTIA requirements."

In separate comments to Computerworld, T-Mobile said that a new procedure that involves notifying customers on their wireless bills about their unlocking eligibility has not been added to its written policy.

Sina Khanifar, a technology fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a long-outspoken advocate for cellphone unlocking, recently reviewed the major U.S. wireless carriers' policies and practices since they reached a voluntary agreement to unlock former customers' smartphones so they can switch carriers.

You might be surprised to learn that most carriers are not sticking to the agreement very well.

A little background on the policy – after years of criticism from relatively niche technology and privacy advocates, by late 2013 the wireless carriers found themselves the targets of mainstream criticism for their refusal to unlock former customers' smartphones. This, of course, prevented customers from switching carriers and often forced them to sign new contracts with them. Even the White House called for reform on the issue, and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler threatened to impose new regulations on the practice if the industry didn't voluntarily change its unlocking policies. The carriers chose the latter and, through a letter from wireless trade organization CTIA, promised to reach an agreement.

When the FCC published a blog post last week declaring that the carriers had met their commitment for unlocking practices, Khanifar decided to look into it. So he combed through the unlocking policies of AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile to see how well they actually stuck to this voluntary agreement. He devised a grading system based on the terms to which the carriers agreed. Here's how the carriers performed:

021715 khanifar chart Sina Khanifar

AT&T's notification practices appear to be unclear, but its policies appear to be largely in line with what it agreed to. Verizon passed the test with flying colors, but Khanifar did point out in a follow-up email that the FCC prohibits service providers that own licenses in the 700MHz Block C Band of spectrum from locking handsets (here's a page summarizing this stipulation). Verizon is one of those companies, so the voluntary agreement actually turns out to be a nice little PR win for Verizon.

Sprint was the only carrier that failed to display its policy in a clear manner. It was also the only one that failed to fulfill the agreement's commitment to allow those who are deployed with a U.S. military service to unlock their phones. T-Mobile was found that it still lacked lenient policies for both prepaid and postpaid smartphones.

Khanifar also looked into some of the smaller wireless carriers, finding specifically that Tracfone's unlocking policy "amounts to: 'we're looking into it, and maybe, someday, we'll let you unlock your devices.'" He's not wrong. The entirety of Tracfone's policy amounts to 143 words and chalks up its reluctance to permit phone unlocking to security concerns.

Khanifar also insists that the agreement overlooked interoperability, and as a result it falls short of providing real freedom to consumers even when the wireless carriers stick to it.

"Verizon is the only carrier that seems to have realized how ridiculous 'locking' consumer's devices is in the first place," Khanifar wrote. "They've almost entirely stopped locking phones, and make it trivially simple to unlock any phones that may have a lock. But even they don't make interoperability simple. Their Bring Your Own Device program makes it clear that your phone needs to be an 'unused Verizon phone' to be eligible."

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