You know that car mechanic you see often? The one who does an OK job but always forgets a little something here and there? Imagine if you wanted to switch mechanics, but you couldn't without asking him to unlock something in your car. That sounds annoying, right?
Unfortunately, this analogy actually describes our relationship with US wireless carriers, who have all but kept consumers locked in to contracts and to phones when all we've wanted was an easy way out.
CTIA, the trade group that represents these companies, announced Thursday that all five major carriersthat includes AT&T, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellularhave voluntarily agreed to make unlocking phones a guaranteed and more transparent process. The announcement of six principles that outline how the carriers will handle unlocking devices means consumers looking to unlock their phones and tablets should have a simpler time doing so. The only time a carrier won't unlock your phone is if it feels that the unlock request is fraudulent or that the phone has been stolen.
Carriers have long opposed unlocking phones, likely for fear of losing customers to a competitor. It's been frustrating for consumers, though, who want the freedom to take their phones overseas or to another carrier within the US. Last year, the Librarian of Congress even declared that unlocking a phone violates the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
But the pressure has been mounting on carriers to rethink their opposition. Earlier this year, the Obama administration came out against a ban on cell phone unlocking. Last month, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler told carriers to ease up on unlocking restrictions or face the possibility of increased regulations. Apparently, the five carriers decided that volunteering to change was a better option than being ordered to do so.
There's still some work to be done with the announcement, however. Sina Khanifar, founder of Fix the DMCA, wrote in an email blast that, "the real solution needs to come from Congress" and that people should be able to unlock their devices without consulting with their carriers first. "If you've bought something you should be able to do whatever you want with it, whether its modifying it, or unlocking it. You shouldn't need a massive corporation's permission."
The voluntary agreement will go into effect immediately, with three of the six principles being implemented within three months and the remainder within the next year.