As of last week, cell phone providers are required to allow customers to unlock their phones, based upon six guidelines set forth by the FCC. The CTIA Wireless Association, which all of the big four are a part of, promised the Federal Communications Commission to meet the requirements guidelines. It seems that their idea of keeping a promise varies a bit from what most would call keeping their word.
Sina Khanifar, a consumer rights activist who the White House credits for starting the petition that pushed Congress to pass the law, has created a scorecard showing just how well or not, each of the big four fairs in keeping said promises to the FCC.
Surprisingly, the exception here is Verizon. Big Red is the only one of the four who seems to have enacted of the new unlocking policies. Next up would be AT&T, meeting five of the six, followed by T-Mobile, who meets four, but fails on two of them. Sprint (of course, it had to be my main carrier) comes in at last place, meeting three and dropping the ball on the other half.
To be fair, Verizon, more or less, MUST adhere to a more strict policy, due to conditions placed upon spectrum that it bought at auction. But, Sprint takes the galling prize here, since not only does it fail on half of the requirements but, according to Khanifar, gives customers connection troubles, when they bring a device from another carrier. Khanifar wrote, “The ‘Consumer Code’ carriers signed up for does not include ‘a commitment from carriers to accept unlocked devices on their networks,’ leading to varying policies.” He continues, “Interoperability is an obvious and critical piece of what makes unlocking valuable. If you unlock your phone, you need to be able to take it to another carrier and use it. But many carriers, most notably Sprint, specifically say that they won’t activate phones that were originally sold by another carrier. That’s despite the cellular technologies the phones use being entirely standardized. In Sprint’s case, those restrictions even apply to their own MVNOs. Virgin Mobile devices run entirely on Sprint’s network. But even if Virgin Mobile unlocks it for you, Sprint won’t activate it for use on a prepaid or postpaid account. It’s patently absurd: there’s simply no good reason to prevent users from bringing their own devices—in fact, it makes it even hard for consumers to switch to your carrier. The only justification for that kind of policy is to gouge customers and force them to buy more expensive, ‘carrier-approved’ devices that come with 2 year contracts.”
And Verizon, though meeting all six condition, is not exactly ‘pure’ either, when it comes to attaching devices from other networks. Khanifar says, “Their Bring Your Own Device” program makes it clear that your phone needs to be an ‘unused Verizon phone’ to be eligible.” And, in defense of AT&T and T-Mobile, he found no problems with their ‘bring your own device’ policies.
Coming back to Sprint, Khanifer states, “Sprint says that they will only perform an ‘International SIM unlock’ for active customers. There appears to be no provision for unlocking phones for international use if you are not an active Sprint customer, which is one of the requirements of the CTIA’s ‘Consumer Code.’ Furthermore, they place restrictions on the number of devices you can unlock: for example, consumers don’t qualify for an ‘international’ unlock if they’ve unlocked a different phone in the past 12 months.” As for Sprint’s military personnel policy, “Specifically, it refuses phone unlocking for any personnel who has ‘previously unlocked another device within the past 12 months,'” he wrote. “That’s well outside the voluntary guidelines of CTIA’s Consumer Code. What happens if a user’s phone or tablet is damaged or breaks while deployed?
T-Mobile did at least respond to some of the issues that Khanifer raised and addressed his ‘unlocking devices for former pre-paid customers’ concerns.
All-in-all, though we, as consumers, may have gotten a small victory here, it appears that getting the providers to act within the spirit of the law is going to be an uphill battle.
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