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In December 2013, the wireless trade group CTIA wrote a letter to the Tom Wheeler and the other commissioners of the FCC announcing that all four of the major carriers had committed to adopting six voluntary measures to make unlocking cell phones easier for consumers. Earlier this week, the FCC announced that it was “proud to report that the country’s major providers have met their commitment.”
I’ve been advocating for a consumer’s right to unlock and modify their devices (cellular or otherwise) for the past three years, so I was particularly curious to check out exactly how each carrier has implemented their own voluntary guidelines. Those guidelines are clearly laid out in the CTIA’s Consumer Code for Wireless Service, but here is a brief summary:
Based on these guidelines, I went around studying each carrier’s unlocking policies to check how they compare.
Disclosure: Verizon’s full unlocking policy is available here.
Verizon doesn’t lock any of their 4G LTE or 3G devices, other than their “Phone-in-the-Box” devices, which are trivially unlockable with either the code “000000” or “123456.” So they automatically receive credit in all the other categories.
Disclosure: Sprint provides information about their unlocking policy online here. I’m not sure the policy can be described as “clear, concise and accessible,” however. The policy described on that page only applies to postpaid devices. The policy for prepaid devices is hidden two links away at this URL. A strange and artificial distinction is made between “domestic” and “international” unlocking, the latter of which is only available to current Sprint customers. The “domestic” unlocking category is again broken down into two subcategories: “Master Subsidy” and “Domestic SIM” unlocks.
Postpaid policy: Sprint’s prepaid unlocking policy breaks unlocking into two categories, “for domestic usage” and “for international travel.” Sprint says that they will only perform an “International SIM unlock” for active customers. There appears to be no provision for unlocking phones for international use if you are not an active Sprint customer, which is one of the requirements of the CTIA’s “Consumer Code.” Furthermore, they place restrictions on the number of devices you can unlock: for example, consumers don’t qualify for an “international” unlock if they’ve unlocked a different phone in the past 12 months.
Prepaid policy: Sprint says on this page that it will unlock a prepaid device if “The device has been active on the associated account for at least 12 months with the account active at that time.” Though this is a bit confusing, the FAQ indicates that they “may” unlock devices whose accounts are in good standing, even if you are not the original owner. We tentatively give them the benefit of the doubt, even though the language they use is very unclear.
Notification: Sprint says that they will “generally” notify postpaid users via SMS or a notice in their bill if they are eligible to have their device unlocked. Postpaid users are only notified via Sprint’s website.
Response time: Sprint doesn’t indicate how quickly they’ll process unlocks.
Deployed personnel: Sprint won’t unlock more than 1 device per 12 months, which is a restriction that doesn’t really abide with CTIA’s Consumer Code. What happens if a user’s phone or tablet is damaged or breaks while deployed?
The most significant missing component from the consumer code is a commitment from carriers to accept unlocked devices on their networks. This is a critical piece of what makes unlocking valuable - the ability to use devices on other networks. Some carriers, most notably Sprint, specifically say that they will not activate phones that were originally sold by another carrier on their network. That restriction even applies to their own MVNOs - so a Virgin Mobile phone that runs on Sprint’s network can’t be used on Sprint even if Virgin Mobile unlocks it for you.