clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Unlocking your cellphone is still illegal, and the FCC still doesn't like it

New, 115 comments
Android lockscreen pin
Android lockscreen pin

Making cellphone unlocking legal may not be the hot-button issue it was earlier this year, after over 100,000 people signed a White House petition and prompted a response from President Obama. But the FCC wants phone companies, Congress, and phone users alike to remember that the issue is still far from resolved. In a statement today, interim chairwoman Mignon Clyburn says the FCC is working to hammer out an unlocking agreement with carriers while several pieces of legislation plod through Congress.

"Months ago, the commission began meeting with carriers and representative trade associations to reach an industry standard policy for unlocking cell phones," writes Clyburn. "As the 114,000 people that signed on to the White House petition earlier this year demonstrate, this issue is too important to consumers for us to not find a solution, and I firmly believe a voluntary approach that promotes competition and consumer choice is still possible." She said that while some carriers had adopted reasonable unlocking policies, the FCC was going to "redouble [its] efforts" to get a solution across the board.

"This issue is too important to consumers for us to not find a solution."

Clyburn's stated goal is a system where any customer can unlock a phone on any carrier, as long as they've fulfilled the terms of their contract (so no buying a subsidized phone from one carrier and hopping over to another within the month.) The FCC can't make its own laws, so that's about as far as its current capabilities go, but it's not enough for many advocates of unlocking. AT&T and T-Mobile both offer to unlock most phones after a contract has expired, for example, but navigating the many limitations isn't always easy — and if you've let your service lapse or purchased a phone secondhand, you could be out of luck, with the law still firmly on phone companies' side.

Earlier this year, Clyburn's predecessor Julius Genachowski asked Congress to consider changing that law, and several legislators have introduced bills that would make unlocking your own phone legal. Clyburn doesn't suggest a legal change here, and almost all these bills still remain in committee, although one from Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) was approved by the House Judiciary Committee last month. Until one moves forward, the FCC's negotiations are the only game in town, even if they won't deliver the dramatic solution many people want.