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CTIA, FCC agree on device unlocking rules

Just weeks after prodding the industry for action, the Federal Communications Commission garnered an agreement with wireless trade association CTIA and five of its largest carrier members to adopt a voluntary set of policies regarding unlocking mobile devices. The five carriers include Verizon Wireless, AT&T Mobility, Sprint, T-Mobile US and U.S. Cellular.

The agreement calls for:

1. Disclosure: Each carrier will post on its website its clear, concise and readily accessible policy on postpaid and prepaid mobile wireless device unlocking.

2. Postpaid unlocking policy: Carriers, upon request, will unlock mobile wireless devices or provide the necessary information to unlock their devices for their customers and former customers in good standing and individual owners of eligible devices after the fulfillment of the applicable postpaid service contract, device financing plan or payment of an applicable early termination fee.

3. Prepaid unlocking policy: Carriers, upon request, will unlock prepaid mobile wireless devices no later than one year after initial activation, consistent with reasonable time, payment or usage requirements.

4. Notice: Carriers that lock devices will clearly notify customers that their devices are eligible for unlocking at the time when their devices are eligible for unlocking or automatically unlock devices remotely when devices are eligible for unlocking, without additional fee. Carriers reserve the right to charge non-customers/non-former-customers a reasonable fee for unlocking requests. Notice to prepaid customers may occur at point of sale, at the time of eligibility or through a clear and concise statement of the policy on the carrier’s website.

5. Response time: Within two business days after receiving a request, carriers will unlock eligible mobile wireless devices or initiate a request to the OEM to unlock the eligible device, or provide an explanation of why the device does not qualify for unlocking, or why the carrier reasonably needs additional time to process the request.

6. Deployed personnel unlocking policy: Carriers will unlock mobile wireless devices for deployment military personnel who are customers in good standing upon provision of deployment papers.

The agreement adds that carriers can refuse a request if they feel the request is fraudulent for a stolen device and that they will implement three of the requirements within three months of adopting the policy and all six requirements within one year.

In agreeing to the proposal, CTIA did make sure to clarify that even when unlocked devices may not work across all carrier networks due to technology differences as well as that some features may not be accessible. CTIA added that the unlocking initiative will be recommended for inclusion in its Consumer Code for Wireless Service, which is a voluntary set of rules agreed to by member carriers.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler sent a letter to CTIA in mid-November asking that the trade association include device unlocking into the consumer code that its member carriers have voluntarily committed to providing. Wheeler had previously served as president and CEO at CTIA between 1992 and 2004.

Unlocking has been a contentious issue with some carriers who claim that consumers will not be able to gain access to embedded services if they use a device not initially set up for access to their networks. CTIA has stated some concern related to the bulk unlocking of devices in relation to the potential of stolen mobile devices. In August, CTIA released a statement in connection to former Acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn’s statement regarding device unlocking highlighted the vast number of already unlocked devices available to consumers from both independent manufacturers and carriers.

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