FCC proposes rule for carriers to unlock phones within 60 days


The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wants to make it easier for US mobile consumers to unlock their carrier-locked phones. The agency has proposed a new rule that requires wireless carriers to unlock the devices within 60 days of activation. The rule is currently in the draft stage with the Commission set to discuss it at its July 18 Open Meeting.

FCC aims to make carriers unlock mobile phones within 60 days

Most popular smartphones are available in locked and unlocked variants in the US. Locked phones are sold by carriers and come with a software system locking them to the carrier’s network. The devices cannot connect to networks of other service providers. This means you cannot freely switch carriers, something you can do with an unlocked phone.

However, a locked phone is usually less expensive because the carrier you buy it from subsidizes the cost in the form of bill credit for your phone service. In exchange, you sign a contract to use its service for a certain period. Your phone will remain locked to the carrier until the contract is up or you pay off its full price. You then have the freedom to switch carriers.

While this sounds fairly reasonable, the current regulations for unlocking a phone aren’t quite clear or transparent. The process varies depending on the device and carrier. It also varies by the service type—prepaid or postpaid. Per the FCC, “a carrier may automatically unlock a device after certain conditions are met, send instructions to customers on how to unlock a device upon request, or complete the unlocking process in-store.”

Sometimes, consumers might have to pay an early termination fee to unlock their phones and move them to different carriers. The FCC aims to simplify this process by setting up “a clear and uniform set” of rules that will force all wireless service providers to unlock the phones they sell within 60 days of activation. FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on Thursday.

The Commission will vote on the proposed rule next month

In FCC rulemaking, the NPRM is the stage where public feedback has not been solicited for a draft rule. The Commission will vote on the proposed expansion of phone unlocking requirements on July 18, 2024. Following the meeting, it will seek comments on the rule’s impact on the discounts and incentives carriers offer on locked phones. The FCC will also seek feedback on whether the updated unlocking requirements would benefit smaller providers and resellers.

“Real competition benefits from transparency and consistency,” said Chairwoman Rosenworcel. “That is why we are proposing clear, nationwide mobile phone unlocking rules. When you buy a phone, you should have the freedom to decide when to change service to the carrier you want and not have the device you own stuck by practices that prevent you from making that choice.”

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