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New FCC chairman Tom Wheeler pressures carriers on phone unlocking

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iPhone PIN code unlock
iPhone PIN code unlock

Tom Wheeler has been on the job for less than a month, but the new FCC chairman is today pressuring the CTIA on an issue near and dear to many consumers: the right to unlock a cellphone. In a letter to CTIA president Steve Largent, Wheeler says it's time for the CTIA to codify a consumer's right to unlock a device once their wireless contract obligations have been met. "For eight months, the FCC staff has been working with CTIA on an amendment to your Consumer Code in which this industry would address consumers' rights to unlock their mobile wireless devices once their contracts are fulfilled," Wheeler writes. "Enough time has passed, and it is now time for the industry to act voluntarily or for the FCC to regulate."

According to Wheeler, the FCC wants any potential CTIA amendment or policy to meet several guidelines. First, it must contain a "clear, concise, and readily accessible" policy on unlocking. Second, it must call for carriers to unlock wireless devices "when the applicable service contract, installment plan, or ETF has been fulfilled." The FCC wants US carriers to automatically notify customers when a product they own is eligible for unlocking — or to automatically unlock those devices — all free of charge. Apparently the CTIA has taken issue with this requirement, as Wheeler says the two sides are in agreement on everything else. But Wheeler seemingly won't budge on this point, saying "Absent the consumer's right to be informed about unlocking eligibility, any voluntary program would be a hollow shell."

"We are anxious to work with you and your members to resolve this matter expeditiously."

In September, the Obama administration asked that the FCC ramp up enforcement on free mobile phone unlocking. The administration voiced support for policy changes that 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." For now, unlocking a smartphone without a carrier's permission remains illegal, something the FCC has been working to resolve after significant pushback from consumers last year. Wheeler says the FCC hopes to see the full unlocking rights policy added to the CTIA's Consumer Code before the holiday season.

The CTIA wasted little time in responding to Wheeler's letter, providing the following statement from Scott Bergmann, VP of regulatory affairs:

We look forward to continuing discussions under Chairman Wheeler’s leadership and to ensuring consumers continue to benefit from the world-leading range of competitive devices and offerings. Today’s U.S. consumers have a wide variety of unlocked device and liberal carrier unlocking policies available to them. CTIA also continues to advocate for the passage of ‘The Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act’ (H.R. 1123), which would address consumer confusion about unlocking as a result of the 2012 decision of the Librarian of Congress. While CTIA supports giving consumers a robust set of options, it is important for consumers to note that an unlocked phone doesn’t necessarily mean an interoperable phone, given the technological and engineering realities of wireless networks.