Ina Fried

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Here’s What the Big Carriers and the Feds Agreed To on Cellphone Unlocking

The Federal Communications Commission and the major cellphone carriers on Thursday announced they have reached an agreement on several principles designed to make it easier for consumers to unlock their cellphones.

The deal calls for carriers to be clear about their policies, allow customers to unlock their phones once the terms of their contract have been fulfilled (or by no later than one year for prepaid phones) and for carriers to either automatically unlock the phones or notify customers when they are eligible for unlocking. The carriers also agree to unlock eligible phones within two days and to unlock phones for military personnel who are deployed overseas.

That said, being able to unlock a phone doesn’t mean that it will work on another carrier’s network if it hasn’t been created to work on multiple carriers’ networks — so that’s still something consumers should pay attention to as they buy their phones.

AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon Wireless and US Cellular have all agreed to the principles.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler had indicated that if the carriers had not reached an understanding by year’s end that the FCC was prepared to take regulatory action.

“Consumers win when they are armed with the right information and know their options, especially when it comes to navigating how to unlock a wireless phone after completing a contract,” Wheeler said in a statement Thursday. “Today’s commitment by wireless providers will provide consumers with more information about when, and how, to move their devices from one network to another compatible network, should they choose to do so.”

The White House and a number of key members of Congress have also come out in favor of consumer-friendly unlocking policies. The issue heated up after the Library of Congress determined that unlocking cellphones without a carrier’s permission violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Here’s a letter that the cellphone industry trade group CTIA-The Wireless Association sent to the FCC confirming the agreement.

CTIA Letter on Unlocking

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work