What the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act Means For You

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Today President Obama signs the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, which finally grants Americans a right that 114,000 people petitioned for, the President argued for, that both the Senate and the House of Representatives unanimously agreed to pass.

So now we have the right to unlock our phones. But what does that really mean?

Why would I want to unlock my phone?

Have you ever tried to switch from one carrier to another and been told you’d have to buy a new phone, often with a price tag in the hundreds of dollars? In many cases, that’s simply because your phone is “locked” to one carrier. If you unlock the phone, you can take the phone with you from one carrier to another.

Won’t my carrier unlock my phone for me already anyway?

The answer to that question is a big fat “maybe.” Many carriers have an “unlocking policy”,see (AT&T’s), (Sprint’s), but voluntary unlocking has its limits. For one thing, not every carrier will unlock phones—for example, Virgin Mobile’s website says simply that “Virgin Mobile devices are not currently subject to an unlocking policy.” And even carriers who do perform some voluntary unlocking will not unlock every phone. Most notably, it is extremely difficult to get a carrier to unlock a phone for you that wasn’t originally yours, such as a one you bought on eBay or from a friend. It is also extremely difficult to get a carrier to unlock a new phone while you’re still under contract, for example if you got a new phone but decided to switch back to using the old one and want to unlock the new one to sell it.

The new unlocking law will ensure that consumers can unlock their phones or get someone to do the unlock for them even when carriers refuse.

Okay, so I’m allowed to unlock my own phone. But I don’t know how to do that! So how does this help me?

Don’t have the technical expertise to unlock your phone yourself? No problem. Because not only does this law protect your right to unlock your own phone, it explicitly allows you to enlist the help of someone else—a friend, a relative, or even a company—to do it for you.

Many consumers have a tech-savvy friend or relative who can do handy things like unlock a phone, and who’s happy to help out. But for people who don’t know someone like that, the passage of this law will foster the development of businesses that unlock phones for a small fee. And existing businesses will likely take up phone unlocking as well. For example, it would be natural for existing computer- and phone-repair shops to add phone unlocking to their menu of available services. Or even device manufacturers. Wouldn’t it be nice if iPhone users could make an appointment at their local Apple Store’s Genius Bar to get their phones unlocked, rather than having to jump through hoops with carriers?

Cool! When does this go into effect?

This all goes into effect as soon as President Obama signs it. That’s slated to happen on Friday afternoon, so by the time you get up on Saturday it should be legal to unlock your phone.

This act is just the first step in comprehensive reform, help continue this progress by signing the Unlocking Technology Act

Photo Cred: Flick user David Jones

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