Wheeler to CTIA: Adopt Voluntary Phone Unlocking Regime By December

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has told cell phone companies it is time for them to voluntarily allow consumers to unlock their mobile devices and use them on other carriers after their existing contracts have expired. And he wants that to happen ASAP.

That is according to a copy of a letter from Wheeler, who is former president of CTIA: The Wireless Association, to current president Steve Largent.

He pointed out that FCC staffers have been working for the past eight months with CTIA on amending its consumer code to allow for unlocking. Wheeler says there appears to be agreement on four of five elements the FCC says are crucial to amended such a policy. They agree making the unlocking policy clear and concise, on having the end of a contract be the trigger for allowing unlocking, for process requests within two days or explain why, and unlock devices for deployed military personnel. What they apparently can't agree on is notifying customers when they are eligible for unlocking and/or do so automatically without charge.

Wheeler says without that last part, a voluntary program is a "hollow shell." But Wheeler's next volley packed plenty of powder. "Enough time has passed, and it is now time for the industry to act voluntarily or for the FCC to regulate. Let's set a goal of including the full unlocking rights policy in the CTIA Consumer Code before the December holiday season." That would be within the next two weeks.

A CTIA spokesperson was not available for comment at press time.

"We're glad to see that the Chairman and the FCC are continuing to fight for the interests of consumers and against foot-dragging by the wireless carriers," said Public Knowledge, whose former President, Gigi Sohn, is now a top aide to Wheeler. "It should be common sense that anyone who has bought a phone can use it with whatever network they choose."

"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, said Scott Bergmann, VP of regulatory affairs for CTIA. "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."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.