By Cora Hyun Jung
Murphy News Service
Cellphone customers are now allowed to unlock their devices and switch carriers as of Feb. 11 when the carriers agreed to implement the voluntary “consumer code.” But the agreement fails to guarantee all carriers will accept all phones.
A Library of Congress decision in late 2012 made consumers unable to unlock their cellphones to switch carriers. But U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to take action rescind the Library of Congress decision.
Tom Wheeler, an FCC commissioner, forced wireless carriers to voluntarily commit to improve their unlocking policies before he would push for regulation before a deadline at the end of 2013.
The wireless trade group Cellular Telephone Industries Association (CTIA) wrote a letter to Wheeler shortly before the deadline passed that four major carriers (Verizon, Sprint, AT&T Inc. and T-Mobile) voluntarily accepted six standards to allow customers to unlock their cellphones and promised to implement them by Feb. 11 of this year. The 2012 Library of Congress decision was overturned by new legislation proposed by Klobuchar in July 2014, legalizing cellphone unlocking.
“It sounds like really nice thing,” Mina Kian said. She is a biomedical engineering student of Eagle Ridge Academy in Eden Prairie. “After two years being in the relationship with your carrier, you can switch your carrier if you want to. I guess it’s nice because it offers you that freedom.”
But not all carriers are faithfully following the six voluntary measures as the FCC announced. It was found out that T-Mobile and Sprint don’t fully follow the unlocking policies according to an analysis done by a web developer Sina Khanifar.
“Sprint and T-Mobile have failed to fulfill half their own voluntary commitments,” Khanifar wrote in his analysis for RepeaterStore.com.
He also said the six principles lack a critical piece.
“Code fails to include a commitment by carriers to accept unlocked devices on their networks,” Khanifar wrote. “If you unlock your phone, you need to be able to take it to another carrier and use it.”
The missing interoperability may make the code meaningless as a carrier might not accept a cellphone if it is unlocked by other carrier.
Sprint noted on its website that it “may not activate unlocked devices from other carriers/service providers, including devices manufactured for Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile, and Assurance Wireless,” which are their independent network operators. Khanifar noted that “the only justification for that kind of policy is to gouge customers and force them to buy more expensive, “carrier-approved” devices that come with two-year contracts.”
“Say that I bought a car, and then I drove out of Minnesota, and my car doesn’t work,” Abell Gebreselassie, 25, of Saint Paul, said. He is working as a sales associate at a Verizon store for one and a half years. “That’s the same thing. It’s my car, then why can’t I use it the way I want to use it. I think they (manufacturers and carriers.) overstep their boundaries.”
Gebereselassie explained there are some phones that consumers can only unlock between two carriers.
“You can choose any carrier if it’s unlocked, but there are some phones that are only capable on certain types of carriers,” he said. “Some phones only work on GSM (global system for mobile), and some only work on CDMA (code division multiple access). Sprint and Verizon are both (using) CDMA, and AT&T and T-Mobile are both on GSM.”
The network problem against interoperability is a trivial barrier because most of modern smartphones are built with LTE (long-term evolution) networks with multi-band, multi-technology support, and most carriers have LTE networks for interoperability.
Nate Payne, a sophomore biology major at the U, said he had to buy a new iPhone 4 last June after he broke his phone.
“I broke my phone, and I had to go online to buy a new one,” Payne said. “I could’ve got one from my roommate, because he had a contract phone through AT&T I couldn’t use it. So, instead of getting a free phone just to replace the one I broke, I had to buy a new one.”
Reporter Cora Hyun Jung is studying journalism at the University of Minnesota.