The FCC and US wireless carriers are close to agreeing on blanket rules for cellphone unlocking, Reuters reports. Sources say that the deal, expected "soon," will likely require telecoms to make sure customers know if their phone is eligible to be unlocked and used on another carrier, process requests for unlocking within two days, and establish rules for prepaid phones that don't fall inside the normal contract-based system. Right now, the FCC is apparently hammering out final details, including how exactly people will get prepaid phones unlocked and how to avoid "black markets" of unlocked phones bought with subsidies and then sold at a discount. If an agreement is reached, it could mark a significant step forward in establishing best practices on cellphone unlocking, albeit not a full solution to the problem.
Most major carriers already have some kind of process for unlocking your subsidized phone after paying out a two-year contract, but they're often inconsistent and difficult to navigate. And, because of what's arguably a byproduct of US copyright law, doing your own unlocking or hiring someone to unlock a phone for you is illegal — and has been since January, when a limited exception expired. That expiration provoked widespread dissatisfaction and, ultimately, a White House declaration that people should be able to unlock their phones. Since then, several bills have been filed in Congress, but the FCC has been more active, urging carriers to adopt more uniform policies.
If this agreement is made official, it would potentially make unlocking easier for a large number of people. What it notably wouldn't do, however, is make it legal per se: carriers would just have to be more lenient and responsive. And while current FCC chair Tom Wheeler and Mignon Clyburn, the interim chair who made unlocking a priority during her tenure, testified at a House hearing today, we're still waiting for either house of Congress to vote on a bill that would re-legalize unlocking as a whole.