Saturday, November 16, 2013

FCC to CTIA: Unlock handsets voluntarily, or we may regulate

The FCC and the White House have been moving in this direction for some time, and on Thursday, in a letter to Steve Largent (yes, that Steve Largent), who heads the CTIA, which represents the cellular industry, new FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler formalized the matter (via Ars Technica).

The letter said that the FCC and CTIA have been working together for eigth months on an amendment to the CTIA's Consumer Code in to address the rights of consumers to unlock their mobile wireless devices once their contracts are fulfilled. Wheeler set an aggressive goal in the letter, saying:
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.
The phrase "or for the FCC to regulate" has to be noted.

Consumers want the ability to unlock their phones -- which enables them to use them on any wireless carrier -- and at any time, as well. Many would be willing to pay extra for it, as seen by those who buy factory unlocked devices. For them, this move may not go far enough, as the FCC says the unlocking would occur "after a contract is complete."

There are, of course, technical reasons why unlocking may not work seamlessly. Differences between the technology used on one carrier or another may prevent a device from performing optimally -- or working at all -- on a different carrier. Many still recall the days before T-Mobile acquired rights to the iPhone -- it had many devices on its network, but at the time they could only operated at EDGE, not 3G and certainly not 4G.

Still, this sort of move would be welcomed by consumers.

According to the letter, there are five parts to the proposed policy.
  1. provide a clear, concise, and readily accessible policy on unlocking;
  2. unlock mobile wireless devices for customers, former customers, and legitimate owners when the applicable service contract, installment plan, or ETF has been fulfilled;
  3. affirmatively notify customers when their devices are eligible for unlocking and/or automatically unlock devices when eligible, without an
  4. additional fee;
  5. process unlocking requests or provide an explanation of denial within two business days; and unlock devices for military personnel upon deployment.
According to the letter, it is the third point that is the sticking point, with other the CTIA and FCC "in agreement" on the other items.

The CTIA responded quickly, and isssued 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.
That final sentence notes the technological differences we indicated above.

The FCC's "deadline" of this holiday season would seem undoable, based on the usual snail's pace of these sorts of things (even if the FCC chooses to regulate). Still, the news of moves in this direction has to be welcomed by consumers.

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