In a letter to the CTIA’s CEO and President, Steve Largent, the new acting Chairman of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, has already set out some pretty ambitious goals in regards to the state of phone unlocking.
The letter itself reads, "Dear Steve,
During my first week on the job, I continually emphasized the importance of competition
and the FCC’s receptiveness to voluntary industry activities to promote competition. For eight
months, the FCC staff has been working with CTIA on an amendment to your Consumer Code in
which this industry would address consumers’ rights to unlock their mobile wireless devices
once their contracts are fulfilled."
In this, the FCC Chairman is talking to the CEO and President of the mobile industry’s biggest industry group. The CTIA is partially responsible as an interest group of the mobile carriers for the deplorable state of device unlocking and the fact that consumers have to jump through ridiculous hoops in order to unlock their devices. His letter continues, stating some parameters that the FCC has come to that the carriers need to follow.
"The Commission has indicated that any such policy must contain five parts: (a) provide a
clear, concise, and readily accessible policy on unlocking; (b) unlock mobile wireless devices for
customers, former customers, and legitimate owners when the applicable service contract,
installment plan, or ETF has been fulfilled; (c) affirmatively notify customers when their devices
are eligible for unlocking and/or automatically unlock devices when eligible, without an
additional fee; (d) process unlocking requests or provide an explanation of denial within two
business days; and (e) unlock devices for military personnel upon deployment. It appears that
CTIA and the FCC are in agreement on all but the third item regarding consumer notification.
Absent the consumer’s right to be informed about unlocking eligibility, any voluntary program
would be a hollow shell."
Here Tom is basically telling the President and CEO of the CTIA that they may see eye to eye on most of the parts, except for the part where the carriers need to notify the owners of the devices that they are eligible for an unlock. Surely, the carriers wouldn’t want to have to do this since it would increase the portability of devices and the likelihood that someone would leave a carrier after they’ve completed the term of their contract. The carriers have for a long time tried to do this by simply making their devices inoperable on other carriers’ networks, but now that standards are converging and devices are becoming more capable. As a result, one could buy a Nexus 5 from AT&T, Sprint or T-Mobile and be able to use the same device on any three networks. A great improvement from the state of things only a few years ago.
He continues, "We are anxious to work with you and your members to resolve this matter expeditiously.
Enough time has passed, and it is now time for the industry to act voluntarily or for the FCC to
regulate. Let’s set a goal of including the full unlocking rights policy in the CTIA Consumer
Code before the December holiday season."
This is where the ultimatum comes, Wheeler is basically telling the CTIA and their members that they have until BEFORE the December holiday season to either make this unlocking happen as promised or deal with regulation from the FCC. He’s giving them essentially a few weeks to implement new unlocking policies or the FCC will simply impose them upon the companies. He then finishes the letter by saying, "We look forward to working with you on this policy as well as continuing to work together after its adoption to monitor its implementation." This is a clear reminder that the FCC will not only be making sure that this happens but also monitoring that it continues to operate upon the agreed terms. Essentially, the FCC is taking control of the situation after letting the carriers drag their feet on something they clearly don’t want to do. Hopefully Tom Wheeler will continue to stand up to the carriers and maybe, even, do something about the deplorable state of cable and TV networks. Okay okay, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.