FCC, wireless carriers reach unlocking agreement

FCC, wireless carriers reach unlocking agreement

By Bobby Elliott, E-Scrap News

Dec. 20, 2013

An agreement to simplify and streamline a cellphone "unlocking" policy has been reached between the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the top wireless carriers in the country.

After the Librarian of Congress made a surprise ruling in January 2013 to effectively ban cellphone unlocking — the process of switching a phone from one service provider to another — the topic became a hot-button issue among electronics refurbishers, policymakers and cellphone carriers. For mobile phone trade-in companies, such as Gazelle and ecoATM, the issue was particularly important, as the industry relies on the ability to unlock turned-in devices in order to prepare them for reuse and resale in the global market.

The FCC's Dec. 12 agreement with the top 5 U.S. carriers — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon and U.S. Cellular — appears to give closure to the issue, for now.

Under the new agreement, consumers who have fulfilled their contractual obligations will be able to renew their contract or switch over to another service carrier. In some cases, consumer options will be limited due to technological differences between the carriers, but, for the most part, the agreement offers consumers more control over choosing their carrier.

Carriers will also be required to provide a response for unlocking requests within 48 hours. Amid widespread finger-pointing last month that AT&T had clandestinely altered its unlocking policy — making it slower and more expensive to do — the timeline should ease consumer and e-scrap business concerns.

In late January, a petition asking the Obama administration to overturn the Librarian of Congress ruling was launched, and it garnered 114,322 signatures and an official response from the president's office. "Neither criminal law nor technological locks should prevent consumers from switching carriers when they are no longer bound by a service agreement or other obligation," the White House statement read.

The new agreement seems to follow most of the recommendations put forth by the Obama administration.

According to a statement released by FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, "half of the components will be implemented within the next three months and all aspects of the proposal implemented within a year." The FCC will oversee the roll-out of the program, and Wheeler, who worked as a wireless industry lobbyist before becoming FCC chairman, viewed the agreement as a win for consumers.

FCC commissioner Ajit Pai was less effusive in his praise of the accord, calling it "a half-step forward" in a statement released alongside Wheeler's. According to Pai, the decision by the Librarian of Congress was a decision "to solve a problem that didn't exist" and the agreement still "keeps carriers in control of the process." The bigger question, Pai added, is what happens moving forward.

"Today’s agreement does not resolve the fundamental problem with federal law," Pai's statement read. "No matter what we do here at the FCC, we cannot ourselves exempt unlocking cellphones or other wireless communications devices from the constraints of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Only Congress can do that."

Efforts from House and Senate members are ongoing in regards to the issue. The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries recently announced its support of legislation introduced by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA.) and companion legislation from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) that would alter copyright law to allow consumers to unlock their phones themselves, while ensuring that e-scrap businesses would be legally allowed to unlock phones and resell them. While no vote is currently scheduled for either of the bills, the FCC agreement could "help expedite — not slow down — that process," Pai stated.

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Comments

Congress still needs to act

This agreement is great for consumers, but doesn't do anything to help the recycling industry. We need to keep pressure on Congress to pass comprehensive legislation guaranteeing our right to unlock hardware and bring it back to the market.

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