Smartphones, be free!

20140806_cellunlocked_blogGood news out of Washington can be a rare thing, but we’ve got some! A new law has now formally reversed a goofy policy that forced consumers to get their cellphone carrier’s permission if they wanted to take their phone to another carrier.

This month, the “Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act” sailed through Congress and was signed into law. It reversed a Library of Congress decision in 2012 that made it illegal for consumers to “unlock” their phones–meaning to take the device with them to another carrier and its network. The 2012 policy meant that you had to get your old carrier’s OK to take the phone to another carrier–even if you had already paid for the phone and owned it outright.

The Library of Congress’ involvement in this decision always baffled me. But under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the Library has the power to review exceptions to copyright rules every three years. Previously, it had upheld cellphone unlocking as legal. In October 2012, however, the Library revised its interpretation.

That ignited a firestorm. More than 114,000 consumers signed a White House petition asking the president to champion a bill to fix the problem, and some 1,200 members of CUB’s Action Network asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to tackle the issue also.

The FCC did reach an agreement with carriers that opens the door for customers to unlock phones they own–and the new law makes it official.

But, as usual, the fight is not over. CBS News recently reported the new law may be only a Band-Aid for bigger problems. For one, CNET points out that even with unlocking it’s still difficult to switch carriers because not all of them use the same network technologies.

Yep, the new law is a baby step forward, but baby steps are giant leaps when it comes to a stubborn, and largely unregulated, cellphone industry. It’s still good news.

Join CUB’s Action Network to get involved in pro-consumer campaigns just like this.

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About Jim Chilsen

Jim is director of communications for the Citizens Utility Board (CUB)
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