At the Obama administration's direction, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has petitioned the FCC with suggested rules to formalize not only the legality of unlocking phones, but that carriers be required to do so free of charge. The NTIA's proposal says that any customer — whether under contract or not — should be allowed to unlock his or her phone or tablet. One of the reasons many carriers lock phones is to keep customers from switching, but the NTIA argues that carriers already have plenty of levers to keep customers on board, writing that carriers "effectively prevent consumers from subverting that [contract] model through long-term service contracts, enforced by penalties or fees for early termination."
The proposed rules would also allow new customers to get an unlock from a carrier, writing that "A lawful recipient of a wireless device should be able to benefit from the proposed unlocking requirement." A carrier could directly unlock a phone itself or "providing authorization" to another carrier to execute the unlock. It's important to note that the NTIA is suggesting that unlocking become a requirement, placing the onus for making it happen squarely on the carriers: "The proposed rule would shift the burden associated with device unlocking onto the carriers that imposed the locks, and ensure they consistently do so in a way that is both expeditious and transparent."
The NTIA, which advises the government on such issues, put together the rules after the White House responded positively to a petition demanding that cell phone unlocking become legal. The FCC is likely to be receptive to the NTIA's proposal, since less than a month ago interim chairwoman Mignon Clyburn said that the FCC was already working with carriers on a possible solution. As the Washington Post notes, several politicians have lined up behind the NTIA's strong proposals as well — so it it looking ever more likely that we could actually see movement on this issue happen soon.