Get Your Phone Unlocked For Free
A reader asks: “I want to switch to another mobile provider, but I love my current phone and don't want to buy a new one. Can I unlock my phone so it will work on any cellular network?” It's a tricky question, and the best short answer is MAYBE. Here's the long answer, and what you need to know about unlocked mobile phones...
Should You Unlock Your Phone?
One of the most bizarre and tortuous plots in U. S. technological history came to a close on February 11, 2015. All U. S. wireless carriers are now required to fulfill customer requests to unlock mobile devices that were purchased from them, at no charge and within two business days of receiving a valid request. Thus ends a struggle between consumers and carriers that traces its roots back to 1998.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998 changed many aspects of copyright law to reflect technological innovations and the new copyright issues they create. Two aspects of the DMCA are relevant to our phone-unlocking story.
First, the DMCA made it a federal crime, punishable by up to five years in prison, to “circumvent” any security scheme that a rights holder implemented on its products to protect them against unauthorized use. Second, the DMCA charged the Copyright Office, an arm of the Library of Congress, with reviewing how the DMCA was working every three years.
In 2005, Motorola threatened to sue a college kid named Sina Khanifar for circumventing the software lock on the company’s phones and selling software that allowed consumers to unlock their Motorola phones. Jennifer Granick, founder of Stanford’s Cyberlaw Clinic, championed Kanifar pro bono, helping him craft legal responses that eventually prompted Motorola’s legal department to back down.
But Granick wasn’t satisfied with a one-client victory; she lobbied the Copyright Office for a DMCA exemption that would allow all consumers to unlock the phones (or tablets, or any device locked to one carrier). That exemption was granted in November, 2006, and renewed in 2009.
But the unlocking exemption was not renewed in 2012, making unlocking your device without your carrier’s permission a potential federal crime once again. The ensuing outrage spurred Congress to pass the Unlocking Consumer Choice And Wireless Competition Act, which President Obama signed into law in January, 2013.
Unlocking the Unlockers
From that time on, it has been perfectly legal to unlock your mobile device without anyone’s permission. But carriers were not required to unlock devices for customers, and third-party unlocking software isn’t always free, or even cheap.
The FCC “worked with” the carriers through their industry association, the CTIA, to develop a framework of conditions under which a carrier would unlock a phone for a customer or former customer. Chief among the carriers’ requirements is that a customer must have fulfilled all of his contractual obligations before the carrier must unlock his phone.
On iPhones, the SIM card slot is on the right edge. Push a paperclip in the small hole to eject the tray containing the SIM card.
For customers on two-year contracts that means a) your contract term has ended and you’ve paid all your bills, or b) you have paid the early-termination fee required to get out of your contract early. If you have a “no (service) contract” deal in which you are obliged to make installment payments on the phone, you have to pay the remaining balance due for the phone before the carrier will unlock it. Prepaid customers can get their phones unlocked after they have spent a certain amount of money for minutes, messages, and/or data.
Every carrier has its unique procedure and policies for unlocking devices. Here are links to the unlocking info Web pages of five major carriers:
- Verizon: http://www.verizonwireless.com/aboutus/commitment/safety-security/device-unlocking-policy.html
- AT&T: https://www.att.com/deviceunlock/#/
- T-mobile: https://support.t-mobile.com/docs/DOC-1588
- Sprint: http://www.sprint.com/legal/unlocking_policy.html
- US Cellular: http://www.uscellular.com/site/legal/mobile-wireless-device-unlocking.html
It’s important to note that “unlocked” is not the same as “inter-operable.” An unlocked device is no longer locked in to just one carrier, but that doesn't mean it's compatible with every (or any) other carrier. For example, some phones on Verizon and Sprint use CDMA technology, and will not work on the GSM networks operated by AT&T, T-Mobile and pretty much every other mobile provider on the planet.
How do you know what type of phone yours is? If your phone has a removable SIM card it's a GSM phone, and can be unlocked. But sadly, there's no guarantee your device will work on another carrier. It boils down to the specific phone you have and which carrier you want to use. As an example, I've read that no unlocked Sprint phones will work on the AT&T network. So it's best to check with the company first.
One good reason to unlock your phone is if you plan to sell it. You'll have a bigger pool of potential buyers if your phone isn't locked to one specific mobile provider.
This new law should make more unlocked devices of all kinds available on the secondary market, lowering their costs and the barriers to switching carriers. The carriers will lose some customers but gain others. The only sure losers are the device manufacturers, because consumers will not have to buy as many new devices.
Will you be unlocking your phone? Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 13 Feb 2015
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- Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved
Article information: AskBobRankin -- Get Your Phone Unlocked For Free (Posted: 13 Feb 2015)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved