The Obama Administration in an initiative to give consumers more freedom in choosing cellphone providers, is petitioning the Federal Communications Commission to initiate a rule-making process that would require carriers to unlock mobile phones.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration filed the formal petition to the FCC Tuesday, asking that it ”immediately initiate the process of setting rules that protect Americans’ investments in mobile devices by allowing them to use their equipment with any compatible network.”
“Americans should be able to use their mobile devices on whatever networks they choose and have their devices unlocked without hassle,” Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information and NTIA Administrator Lawrence E. Strickling said in a statement.
The White House in March responded to a “We the People” petition, saying “[...] if you have paid for your mobile device, and aren’t bound by a service agreement or other obligation, you should be able to use it on another network. It’s common sense, crucial for protecting consumer choice, and important for ensuring we continue to have the vibrant, competitive wireless market that delivers innovative products and solid service to meet consumers’ needs,”
The controversy surrounding unlocking devices was spurred after the Library of Congress took out an exemption in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which allowed customers to unlock phones themselves.
Will the FCC take action per NTIA’s petition? Sina Khanifar, an entrepreneur who helped launch OpenSignal, a database of wireless network information, and started another petition to “make unlocking cellphones legal,” speculated that possible rule-making action could come soon, basing on a statement made by FCC chairwoman Mignon Clyburn.
“I’ve directed the FCC staff to redouble our efforts with partners across the administration and industry to explore all of our available options for a quick resolution,” Clyburn said in the August 22 statement about “the importance of cellphone unlocking to consumers.”
“However, the language in that statement also indicates that the FCC is hoping that carriers will come together in a voluntary agreement that wouldn’t require the FCC to issue any new rules. That would likely be a considerably less favourable outcome for consumers,” Khanifar wrote in an email.
Khanifar went on in his email to say a carrier unlocking policy would “go a long way,” but it’s still not quite far enough, because “there are many devices that can’t easily be unlocked by carriers.”
“For example, many phones made by smaller manufacturers, or legacy devices for which unlock code databases aren’t maintained, wouldn’t be unlockable even with an FCC mandate,” Khanifar continued.
He also said carriers could take weeks to unlock phones, advocating for a return to allowing consumer unlocking of mobile devices.
There is currently a House bill – Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act — approved by the House Judiciary Committee in July. It is currently waiting to be brought to the floor for a vote.
“This is an issue of consumer choice and flexibility, plain and simple. We are appreciative of the support of groups like NTIA and we will all continue working to see that this issue of significant importance to most Americans is addressed,” said Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia.), John Conyers (D-Michigan), Howard Coble (R-North Carolina), Mel Watt (D-North Carolina) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), according to The Washington Post.