FCC wants telcos to carrier unlock cellphones 60 days after activation

Should you stay or should you go now? If Rosenworcel gets her way, there won't be trouble

Long-term carrier lock-in could soon be a thing of the past in America after the FCC proposed requiring telcos to unlock cellphones from their networks 60 days after activation. 

FCC boss Jessica Rosenworcel put out that proposal on Thursday, saying it would encourage competition between carriers. If subscribers could simply walk off to another telco with their handsets after two months of use, networks would have to do a lot more competing, the FCC reasons. 

"When you buy a phone, you should have the freedom to decide when to change service to the carrier you want and not have the device you own stuck by practices that prevent you from making that choice," Rosenworcel said. 

Carrier-locked devices contain software mechanisms that prevent them from being used on other providers' networks. The practice has long been criticized for being anti-consumer. 

Locked phones can't be used with another carrier without authorization (or somehow bypassing those mechanisms) which is typically baked into the contract. Device unlocking is not designed to be an easy process, either, with most carriers likely hoping a customer would simply sign a fresh contract than leave for someone else. 

There are supposed to be rules on the books in the US that make device unlocking easier, but nonprofit advocacy group Public Knowledge believes they're ineffective. In 2022 the group asked watchdogs to investigate carrier unlock programs to ensure they were fair.

One imagines there will be carrier push-back to that 60-day requirement, and the FCC is opening a public comment period following a vote on the matter at its July 18 open meeting. The regulator said it not only wants people's comments on its two-month unlock plan, but said it also wanted feedback on various ways the change could impact carriers. 

The commission will ask industry for its take on whether the 60-day unlock requirement should be applied retroactively to existing contracts, as well as how an unlock requirement could hit "service providers' incentives to offer discounted phones for postpaid and prepaid service plans." The FCC also wants to know how an unlocking requirement could benefit smaller providers, new carriers, and resellers by expanding the secondary market.

Contrary to expectations, not every carrier is entirely opposed to the FCC's handset unlocking idea.

"Verizon agrees that the FCC should consider the merits and trade-offs of handset unlocking requirements," Verizon spokesperson Rich Young told The Register, though that support is conditional. 

"The goal should be reaching an industry-wide solution to this issue rather than continue with an increasingly fragmented and unbalanced approach to regulation," Young added.

We also reached out to the FCC, AT&T, and T-Mobile US for further comment. ®

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