This week marked the deadline by which all U.S. wireless carriers had to comply with the provision of the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act that requires them to allow phone owners to unlock their devices. The act was passed last year, and the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) announced that February 11, 2015 would be the deadline for wireless carriers to adhere to the voluntary ruling. The big carriers are on board, in addition to a few smaller ones, but the regulation comes with some caveats for consumers.
In the past, carriers have restricted customers from unlocking their devices — meaning removing the carrier’s service in order to go abroad or switch carriers — for the obvious objective of retaining them as paying customers. Under the new regulation, carriers will honor the requests from postpaid and prepaid customers to unlock their phones should certain provisions be met — one of those being the fulfillment of their contracts. The CTIA’s regulatory text says:
Carriers, upon request, will unlock mobile wireless devices or provide the necessary information to unlock their devices for their customers and former customers in good standing and individual owners of eligible devices after the fulfillment of the applicable postpaid service contract, device financing plan, or payment of applicable early termination fee.
Other elements remain that will prevent the implementation of this regulation as an unlocking free-for-all across the U.S. — one being the disparate wireless bands that various carriers use, which will make it trickier for users to simply switch from one to the other. CNET quotes Scott Bergmann, the CTIA’s vice president for regulatory affairs, as he cautioned consumers to be aware of the differences in spectrum:
We are pleased the FCC acknowledged the participating wireless carriers met the deadlines to unlock their customers’ devices per the Consumer Code for Wireless Service. We also remind consumers that an unlocked device does not necessarily mean an interoperable one since different carriers use different technologies and spectrum bands.
But, regardless of the caveats, the regulation could have long-term implications for the increasingly competitive U.S. wireless market. As big wigs like AT&T and Verizon continue their price war, companies like T-Mobile are persistently searching for ways to poach customers (and T-Mobile has succeeded in some capacity). With unlocking devices back on the table, perhaps they will provide another way for carriers to lure users away from other providers.