Wednesday, September 18, 2013

White House urges the FCC to require carriers to unlock cell phones, tablets

Several months ago, in response to a "We the People" petition, the White House said it was fully behind cell phone unlocking, which allows people to take their device from one carrier to another. On Tuesday, the Obama Administration went a step further (WaPo link), filing a petition with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) asking that all wireless carriers be required to unlock all mobile devices.

That includes the iPhone, which carriers have -- in the past -- been extremely reluctant to unlock.

Naturally carriers aren't excited about this prospect, as it would enable users to move from carrier to carrier seamlessly. They also weren't fans of Wireless Number Portability, which was implemented and allows customers to take their number from carrier to carrier.

In Tuesday’s petition to the FCC, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) said that allowing unlocked devices would increase consumer choice as well as competition. It would, the NTIA said, also place the burden of changing cellular networks on companies rather than on consumers.

Lawrence Strickling, assistant secretary of the NTIA, said:
Americans should be able to use their mobile devices on whatever networks they choose and have their devices unlocked without hassle.
Technological issues could make this difficult, as it is, for example, impossible to use a Verizon LTE device on AT&T's LTE network.

As an example, for quite some time, any who jailbroke or took an unlocked iPhone to T-Mobile's network was consigned to slow, slow EDGE mode, as the 3G frequencies on T-Mobile's network did not match AT&T's. Of course, now that T-Mobile has its own iPhone, that problem is alleviated, but there are still other ones (like the Verizon / AT&T one above), and that applies to iPhone, Windows Phone, and Android (and yes, even BlackBerry).

Congress swiftly applauded the NTIA's action, in a bipartisan manner, no less. Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), John Conyers (D-Mich.), Howard Coble (R-N.C.), Mel Watt (D-N.C.) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) issued the following statement:
This is an issue of consumer choice and flexibility, plain and simple. We are appreciative of the support of groups like NTIA and we will all continue working to see that this issue of significant importance to most Americans is addressed.
Nicely, the NTIA's proposal includes tablets, as well as smartphones.

The unlocking of phones by third parties was, in fact, made illegal in January. That followed a period from 2006 until 2012 when the Library of Congress said it was legal via a DMCA exemption.

Every three years, the Library of Congress examines possible DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) exemptions. From 2006 and 2009, it agreed that the unlocking of cell phones -- which allows a user to user their device on any wireless carrier -- was legal.

However, in the last round of examinations, the Library of Congress reversed its decision, again decreeing unlocking was again illegal.

At least jailbreaking and rooting of phones is still legal. Not so, however, for tablets.

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