US mobile carriers agree to offer phone unlocking and notify subscribers

The top five operators agreed to voluntary commitments to be carried out within a year

The top five U.S. mobile operators have agreed to let their customers unlock their devices and move to another provider under pressure from the U.S. Congress and Federal Communications Commission.

AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, T-Mobile, and U.S. Cellular have signed on to an agreement that allows customers to unlock their mobile phones and other devices once they have fulfilled their contracts with their original carrier, mobile trade group CTIA announced Thursday.

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The agreement is a voluntary commitment by carriers to respond to unlocking requests promptly, unlock their phones when eligible and notify subscribers about eligibility. It also includes a commitment to unlocking devices belonging to military personnel when they are deployed for service.

Most mobile devices sold in the U.S. are locked to a particular carrier's network and can't be used on other networks unless they are unlocked, a software change that may be carried out either in person or remotely. Unlocking gives device owners more freedom to choose among mobile operators for the best prices on service. Critics have accused carriers of making it difficult for their subscribers to unlock their phones even when eligible.

Activists, lawmakers and the FCC have leaned on carriers to allow unlocking and inform consumers about it. Last month, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler threatened to legally regulate unlocking if the mobile industry didn't agree to a set of principles for making it easier. In a letter to CTIA President and CEO Steve Largent, Wheeler said the FCC and CTIA had been in talks about unlocking for eight months. Wheeler sought action before the December holiday season.

For regular monthly subscribers, carriers agreed to unlock devices upon request after the customer has fulfilled their contract or financing plan or paid an early termination fee. For prepaid customers, they will unlock devices no later than one year after the first activation. The carriers also agreed to clearly disclose their unlocking policies and give timely notice when subscribers are eligible for unlocking. They also committed to responding to unlocking requests within two business days.

The carriers agreed to implement three of the standards within three months and implement the whole commitment within a year. The CTIA didn't specify which three should be implemented first.

The five operators that agreed to the principles include the four major national carriers and the next largest provider that isn't being absorbed by a major carrier. Leap Wireless, which has been an independent prepaid carrier, is in the process of being acquired by AT&T. The CTIA recommended that the standards be incorporated into the CTIA Consumer Code for Wireless Service, under which the organization annually certifies mobile operators.

Consumer rights group Public Knowledge applauded the agreement but said it shouldn't take a year to carry out.

"This agreement provides customers of the largest carriers the definite ability to unlock their phones and move them to competing carriers. Crucially, it also has strong requirements that carriers give clear and useful notice to consumers of their rights when they can unlock," Vice President of Legal Affairs Sherwin Siy wrote in a statement. "However, it shouldn't take nearly a year, or the intervention of the FCC, to achieve a partial solution to this problem. With more sensible laws in place, the Commission wouldn't have to take steps like these to cajole the carriers into a common-sense solution."

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