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Apr 14 2013

A practical petition from Al Franken

The man is pushing for the right to unlock our mobile phones once their contract is up. I’m with Franken: WE WANT THE FREEDOM TO UNLOCK OUR MOBILE PHONES!.

53 comments

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  1. 1
    Rich Woods

    You wait until your contract is up? Fuck that!

  2. 2
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    What mobile phone?

  3. 3
    michaeld

    Heads down to the local phone booth….

  4. 4
    saukko

    Explain this to me (I’m not American), what does unlocking means. That you are stuck with same cell phone service company when you buy a cell phone?
    I can change my service provider any time, in a few minutes what it takes to sign a contract, plus perhaps a week what takes before for the new company to active my service.

  5. 5
    NightShadeQueen, resident nutcase

    The phone cannot be used with any other company.

    Thankfully, most phones are easy to root, and legal to do so once the contract expires.

  6. 6
    otranreg

    As far as I know, EU actually prohibits this practice. Mobiles aren’t being locked currently and it’s been a long time since I saw one that was.

  7. 7
    Brandon

    I guess that’d be nice, but it doesn’t really mean much to me one way or the other. While there’s some suboptimal things about the current arrangements, I prefer the defrayment of the cost of new technology through contracts to freedom of provider.

  8. 8
    saukko

    @5. nightshadequeen

    Thanks, I had no idea that that is the situation in U.S.

  9. 9
    Crissa

    I don’t believe there is any defrayment of the cost of new technology going on here.

  10. 10
    NightShadeQueen, resident nutcase

    @Brandon

    Franken’s petition is for the right to unlock phones once the contract is up.

  11. 11
    Rip Steakface

    Basically, copying the EU law that mobile companies must allow users to freely switch companies once their contract is up. It would actually encourage better service through competition. A liberturd should love that kind of law, since it promotes the free market, but most are too blockheaded to get it.

  12. 12
    konradzielinski

    Australia has this already. Not only can I already do this. but I can also take my mobile number with me when I change phone companies, and I’ve done this several times now.

  13. 13
    Alverant

    I don’t have a cell but AFAIK there are deals where the carrier and the manufacturer offer a discount if you agree to a contract of X years. If you let people change their carrier before the contract is up, these deals would go away. It would also mean you can break your agreement with the carrier if you felt like it. That doesn’t sit right with me. Now if you bought a cell phone without a contract with a carrier, then there’s nothing to violate so you should be able to pick your own carrier.

  14. 14
    Chuck

    I wonder what the Republican counterargument to this is.

  15. 15
    NightShadeQueen, resident nutcase

    Alverant

    Please actually read the petition. It very clearly says that it’s for the right to unlock phones once the contract is up

  16. 16
    beardymcviking

    Seconding Konrad at #12. I’ve transferred phone and number across carriers multiple times – it doesn’t even take longer than about 15 minutes.

    One time, I was in the Telstra store considering a new contract, when I walked across the road to get my account details from the Vodaphone shop so I could transfer easily. Vodaphone guy was even helpful though I told him I was transferring out.

  17. 17
    Gvlgeologist, FCD

    The Repub argument will be, “It’s bad because it’s proposed by a Democrat”.

  18. 18
    DLC

    I don’t use a smartphone, and have a pay-as-you-go plan that I can drop at any time. But I would still support such an idea.

  19. 19
    Caveat Imperator

    But if were really wise to design contracts like this, the free market would have discovered it and allowed it. The fact that most carriers don’t allow this is evidence against its viability.
    /libertarian wankery

  20. 20
    macallan

    Hmm, back in .de I could stick a different SIM card into my phone and just use that. Just changing the card doesn’t mean you quit the contract you have – for example, when traveling in a different country you may want to buy a cheap, local, prepaid SIM card and use that instead of paying ridiculous roaming fees. That was years ago though, and back then the only SIM-locked phones I’ve seen were cheap prepaid ones.

  21. 21
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    konradzielinski

    but I can also take my mobile number with me when I change phone companies, and I’ve done this several times now

    This is the law in the U.S. too, has been for years. I’ve had the same mobile number since 1999, over something like 6 phones and 4 carriers. It’s the phones themselves that are locked to a particular carrier.

  22. 22
    PatrickG

    Kind of startled by how many people are missing the whole “after contract” thing.

    Anyway, here’s some background I found interesting.

    According to NBC and others, this bill/proposed bill by Franken is in response to a move by the Librarian of Congress which did not renew an exemption under the DMCA last October:

    In October 2012, the Librarian of Congress, who determines exemptions to a strict anti-hacking law called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), decided that unlocking mobile phones would no longer be allowed. But the librarian provided a 90-day window during which people could still buy a phone and unlock it. That window closes on Jan. 26.

    Also from that article:

    The new rule against unlocking phones won’t be a problem for everybody, though. For example, Verizon’s iPhone 5 comes out of the box already unlocked, and AT&T will unlock a phone once it is out of contract.

    The only basis I can find cited as background for the rule change by the LoC is this comment on regulation to the US Copyright Office (part of the Library of Congress – and … er, what is this kind of detail doing in copyright law?). It gets a little weird here, as CTIA is a trade group organization claiming to represent basically all the major players except Metro PCS, and the comment on rules specifically targets Metro PCS:

    One of the Proponents – MetroPCS – is seeking improperly to leverage a section
    1201(a)(1) exemption to cover the provision of circumvention services, which are the subject of the prohibition in section 1201(a)(2) and which are beyond the scope of this proceeding;

    The other two groups this trade org doesn’t like are the Consumers Union and Youghiogheny Communication. The entire comment seems to be how Metro PCS is a total jerk and they aren’t being free market friendly, though I confess to extremely rapid skimming. Oh, and Consumers Union is being mean to the industry.

    Verizon, AT&T, and Apple are all on record (google their press releases yourself, I’m getting flak for not hanging out with my partner) as saying they are quite willing to unlock phones as long as you’re in good standing and not currently in a contract. Granted, some of these releases are a bit weaselly (“if the unlock code can be reasonably obtained from the manufacturer” is one interesting phrase I’ve seen a few times). This is rather at odds with the position of the trade association claiming to represent them, so who knows. Of course, it should be noted that even the benevolent unlockers are in no way advocating for the right of the consumer to unlock the phone; instead, it’s strictly at the discretion of the company. If anything I’ve said here sounds unsourced, I claim partner-related head-whacking and can back it up later if necessary (and if anyone really cares).

    Perhaps it’s just an issue of the companies using an “independent” organization to press for things they want, while simultaneously “fighting” for their customers rights. Wouldn’t exactly be the first time.

    And… that’s about the extent I’m willing to look into this. At least until my grandfathered unlimited data plan gets sent to a death panel. And until my partner stops attacking me with stuffed animals.

  23. 23
    kevinv

    This is a non-issue in the US, phone companies already unlock phones once out of contract. AT&T unlocked my old iPhone 4 without even a visit to a store. My iPhone 5 on Verizon is sold unlocked (for 3G service and certain LTE bands) but it doesn’t matter – the phones are technically impossible to move between carriers. Verizon uses CDMA + certain bands of LTE, AT&T uses certain 3G frequencies and different LTE bands, TMobile & Sprint others yet.

    My unlocked Verizon iPhone will work outside the US, but not with anyone but Verizon in the US. That’s the problem, phone radios are restricted to specific companies not the unlocking.

  24. 24
    andyo

    Heads down to the local phone booth….

    …and down, and down, and down…

  25. 25
    andyo

    nightshadequeen

    The phone cannot be used with any other company.

    Thankfully, most phones are easy to root, and legal to do so once the contract expires.

    Those are two different things, and are oversimplified. The first, the carrier unlock so you can use with another company requires a code for the phone, not rooting or jailbreaking, which won’t help you for it. The businesses that sell unlocks sell you these codes, depending on your phone’s model and carrier/country. Some popular phones/carriers just don’t have the option. It’s implied that they get these codes from insiders. These codes can be obtained from your carrier depending on their conditions.

    Now the real problem is that here in the US, even when you get unlock codes, the only cross-compatible carriers are AT&T and T-mobile. Verizon and Sprint don’t use SIM cards, and they use different systems which aren’t compatible. To make things even worse, some mobile data frequencies aren’t compatible between AT&T and T-mo (which T-mo is getting fixed right now at this moment though), so for full AT&T phone use on T-mo you need so-called “pentaband” phones, of which the iPhone isn’t one. Just a few days ago T-mo started selling their own iPhones, which are different, but then when they deploy their LTE network (available in a couple of cities only right now) AT&T iPhones will be able to tap into that.

    The second statement, the rooting one, is also more complicated. You can root many Android phones, and if you buy a Nexus, you’re the freest you’ll ever be. But carriers (infamously Verizon the most) are also getting better in securing the bootloaders, which hampers the ability to open up the phone (and Verizon is know to cripple the phone model’s abilities in favor of their own services, the last very egregious one was the Verizon Galaxy Nexus’s omission of Google Wallet – a reason why Google told Verizon to go fuck themselves with the Nexus 4). Besides Nexus phones and other notable exceptions (some HTC phones) modders have had to rely on vulnerabilities to open up the bootloaders. Some modders in the community have said that it’s getting more difficult as companies get better at “security” (pressured by carriers no doubt, some more than others *cough*fuckVerizon*cough).

    Regarding the idevices and jailbreaking, the future (and present) seems even bleaker. There wasn’t an unthethered (doesn’t require phone to be connected to PC when rebooting it) jailbreak for iOS 5, until a good time until iOS 6.0.1 was already out, and it didn’t last for long, on the current iOS 6.0.3 Apple disabled it, with similar comments from the modders that it’s going to get difficult and possibly not worth it anymore.

    So, yeah, buy a Nexus, People!

  26. 26
    andyo

    Dammit, close link. The sad thing is that I previewed the comment.

  27. 27
    PatrickG

    @ kevinv:

    phone companies already unlock phones once out of contract

    This is not correct.

    See my comment above. I thought I’d managed the link earlier (extenuating circumstances, see above) to show that not all of them do, and it depends on the carrier you’re using. This particular link is directly to the Apple support forums, and you can readily identify the regional differences in the column labeled “Carrier allows unlocking”.

    The point: unlocking the phone is at the discretion of the carrier. Their choice, not yours. Rules and restrictions apply, refer to your agreement, offer not valid in Guam, North Carolina, and the Bermuda Triangle, and so forth.

    Since you didn’t seem to see it above, a trade organization representing Verizon, AT&T, Apple, etc. has specifically lobbied for this rule change. The individual companies are being very careful to reassure customers that things are Just Fine, but my casual search of their documentation and press releases they’re also very careful to assert that this is a company’s prerogative — either theirs or the regional carrier’s — not consumer discretion.

    It may not be an issue right now, but it could easily be an issue in the future. Which is sort of the point of Franken’s petition/bill.

  28. 28
    PatrickG

    @ kevinv:

    I should rephrase my first sentence:

    This is not correct after the rule change by the LoC.

    They can choose whether or not to do it, sure. But it’s not a consumer’s choice. All at the discretion of the company involved. If they want to leave you with a (legally) smartphone-shaped paperweight, they can.

    That’s the point of this. It’s not a non-issue.

  29. 29
    changerofbits

    @Chuck

    It was tough, but I think I got it:

    Telecommunication companies would just close their doors rather than comply with this onerous 555 page monstrosity of a bill. *whisper from staffer* Well, uh, leave it up to that commie Franken to find a way to kill jobs in a single sentence. *another whisper from staffer* Fuck, you mean I can finally dump AT&T without losing all of my bathhouse numbers?

  30. 30
    ck

    A liberturd should love that kind of law, since it promotes the free market, but most are too blockheaded to get it.

    Yeah, they’re going to oppose it. All they see is the big bad government boogieman telling the poor innocent corporations how to do business.

    This is a non-issue in the US, phone companies already unlock phones once out of contract.

    Except that it’s not a non-issue. Carriers will usually unlock a phone if you’re out of contract, still subscribed to the service, and have no outstanding bills with them. And even then, this is done only at their discretion.

    The excuse that they have to lock them to enforce contact terms is pretty ridiculous, too. If you cancel a contract early, there is an early termination fee that they will charge you that will more than cover the buy-out price of the phone. And if you do, you’re left with a phone that is a brick unless you jump into another contract on the same network. The one thing it does protect is the contract system itself, where people have no idea what their phone costs, and what their phone service costs.

  31. 31
    jufulu

    @30 CK, And now the rest of the story. That ETF is because they gave you a discount of up to $400 that they think would be fair to get back if you don’t stay with them, The ETF is based on the value of the phone and how long you have been under contract. Imaging having to pay your bill before walking off w/ a $750 phone. What are they thinking? At least one of the major carriers will unlock phones that belong to non customers, but limit the number of unlocks w/in a time period. The other thing to consider is that there is a lot of theft of phones out there it takes time to verify that the phone has not been stolen. MMV.

  32. 32
    Crissa

    Re: 13 Alverant 14 April 2013 at 6:09 pm (UTC -5)
    The average price of new phones is about the same between ‘discounted’ and ‘on the open market’ for new phones (as opposed to phones no longer in production).

  33. 33
    Crissa

    I think the lack of jailbreaking actually exacerbates technology rather than gives us new technology.

    See, I have a phone. A phone that isn’t in production now. A phone that has more memory and a faster processor and more cameras than an iPhone! And yet, it is ‘no longer supported’: Because the moment that they stopped being the ‘discounted’ phone, they basically stopped supporting it. I cannot even pay my carrier or my manufacturer for finished programs and software because they would make more money selling me a new phone. And because I can’t jump carriers without buying a new phone, why would the manufacturer care to give me software that was actually finished? They only need to make software that works until I sign the contract. Then the manufacturer doesn’t care anymore. And the carrier knows I’m locked into them, so why would they support me?

  34. 34
    madtom1999

    Phones in the UK on contract are invariably locked. Once the contract has run out they are meant to allow you to unlock the phone but the last time I tried the only contact number was a pay number that never got answered once automatically picked up and the charges started.
    I personally use old unlocked phones on pay as you go – I’m an IT expert and I see little reason to pay a small fortune for something that does less than my laptop which I need with me anyway – if I need a phone.
    I do tend to regard phones a bit like computer office suites – 19thC technology on 21stC hardware which gives the promise of improved efficiency while actually making everything highly inneficient – but shiny!

  35. 35
    peer

    This seems to be the least of my worries at the moment.

  36. 36
    carlie

    Why should it even matter whether the unlock is after contract? You are allowed to break your contract, after all. It’s usually financially stupid to do so, but there’s no law stating you have to keep the contract until the final day of.

  37. 37
    Alexandra (née Audley)

    PatrickG:

    At least until my grandfathered unlimited data plan gets sent to a death panel.

    Oh, jealous! I recently had to change plans (I’m with Verizon and I needed a new phone– my Droid 2′s touch screen was crapping out, amongst other problems) from unlimited to “pay for X amount of data to spread around to all of your gadgets” plan and I hates it. HATES IT.

    I know that the hope is that I will take my laptop and tablet with me wherever I go and, I don’t know, download porn when I’m on the beach or whateverthefuck, but why would I bother to lug everything around with me when I have a smartphone?

    Jesus.

  38. 38
    Ben P

    I wonder what the Republican counterargument to this is.

    That the system allows this in the first place is one of those things that arises from regulatory capture. Franken’s petition is worded carefully to only allow this once the contract is up, because if he did it from the moment of purchase, all the telecom companies would be against him full bore.

    That said, I imagine the Republican-counter argument is that companies should be free to write contract terms if they wish, and that if you prohibit companies from binding customers to them for long periods of time you’ll reduce the market for new phones and therefore reduce innovation (and probably cost jobs) by virtue of the regulation.

    Doesn’t mean it’s a good argument but that’s probably what they’ll argue.

    I don’t believe there is any defrayment of the cost of new technology going on here.

    Oh, there definitely is, but that doesn’t mean you’re not getting screwed.

    If you go to (a) Verizon or (b) ATT, your only realistic options for cell phone service in most areas of the country, and buy a new cell phone, particularly a smart phone, you are almost certainly buying that phone for less than it cost the provider to purchase that phone wholesale. You’re probably even buying it for less than it cost to manufacture it. In exchange you sign a two year service contract.

    But if you think this means you’re getting something for free, or for a discount, you’re being naive.

    In effect, the discount on the new phone is a $100 or $200 signing bonus to sign a two year contract, then they can use their near monopoly power as a provider and the general inertia that it’s a pain to change providers, to more than recover that $100 over the course of the two years, then if you stay with them after the two years are over, you keep paying artificially high rates and it’s just free profit to them.

    But getting back to the phones. Even though selling new phones costs the phone company money up front, they know it’s a good deal, because if they can convince you to upgrade your phone every year or two years (*cough* apple *cough*) , they can successfully keep a large portion of their subscriber base “locked in” and unable to easily switch provides. Then *presto* they’re substantially freed from caring about customer service or any other similar thing because they can’t lose many customers no matter how bad it is.

    This is also encouraged by the hardware makers, because their margins are quite thin, and they know they can sell a hell of a lot more phones if they can convince the consuming populace they need a new phone every two years, and if you can sell a lot of new phones, by getting someone else to subsidize your price, why wouldn’t you? If everyone had to pay the full $400 or $600 that a lot of smart phones cost, there’d be a lot less sales in the phone market.

    So it makes perfect sense for the hardware providers to be complicit in this scheme and make their phones difficult to unlock.

  39. 39
    WharGarbl

    @carlie
    #36

    Why should it even matter whether the unlock is after contract? You are allowed to break your contract, after all. It’s usually financially stupid to do so, but there’s no law stating you have to keep the contract until the final day of.

    Well, that phone contract plan did subsidized for your phone (which they “gained back” by charging a bit more on your monthly plan).
    I like the fact that T-Mobile’s new plans setup made that clear. ALL their phone plan doesn’t have a phone, but they allow you to buy their phones on a monthly installment basis (which is about 2 years) and comes unlocked. There’s no contract for the mobile plan, but you do have to pay off your phone.

  40. 40
    kevinv

    @patrickg

    The main reason I call it a non-issue is that in the US you can’t really move phones between networks even if they are unlocked. This needs to be addressed as well.

  41. 41
    PatrickG

    @ kevinv: Ok, I didn’t get that point from your earlier post, sorry. But hey, baby steps… first deal with the Librarian of Congress and the Copyright Office. :)

  42. 42
    Alverant

    @Chrissa 32
    If you say so. I don’t pay much attention to cell phone prices away. I’m still not getting one even if it is unlocked after the contract is up.

  43. 43
    madtom1999

    #36 Carlie – yes you can break your contract but then you wouldn’t legally have a phone to unlock – they’d want their property back. Its not yours until the contract is up.

  44. 44
    carlie

    Isn’t part of the breaking of contract agreement paying off the phone, though? (hence why it is usually so financially bad to do so)

  45. 45
    Ben P

    #36 Carlie – yes you can break your contract but then you wouldn’t legally have a phone to unlock – they’d want their property back. Its not yours until the contract is up.

    Actually, typically you’ve purchased the phone under the contract and it’s yours.. They won’t ask for it back. They will, however, come after you for the contract termination fee, which is usually quite a bit more than the discount you got on the phone. Last I looked at mine the early termination fee was like $350.

    However, as some others said, particularly if you have Verizon, the only other network you could possibly use is T-Mobile. Unless you have a dual band phone unlocking it won’t do you much good. ATT is a little better, the standard they use is the international one, but the US market is basically a duopoloy.

    Fun fact: due to a government anti-trust suit AT&T was required to relinquish ownership of the Bell companies, creating the “baby bells.” These were seven independant companies Ameritech, Bell Atlantic, BellSouth, NYNEX, Pacific Telesis, Southwestern Bell, and US West.

    Today AT&T owns and has reincorporated Ameritech (via SBC), BellSouth, Pacific Telesis (via SBC), and Southwestern Bell (via SBC).

    Verizon owns Bell Atlantic and NYNEX

    US West was aquired by QUEST, which itself was aquired by Centurylink, and is the only Baby Bell not under the control of either AT&T or Verizon.

  46. 46
    Ben P

    Following up the above, the reason they don’t want the cell phone back is because a used cell phone is worth nothing to them.

  47. 47
    madtom1999

    When you wrote break your contract I took that to mean ‘just stop paying or similar’ rather than the meaning here which seems to be buy out of it which is not referred to as ‘breaking’ in the UK.
    It is normally a very expensive way of getting a phone though!

  48. 48
    NightShadeQueen, resident nutcase

    @andyo

    Ah, okay, thanks.

    I figured the iPhone jailbreaks would become more annoying after they switched the charger, but are phones UEFI nowadays?

    Meep.

  49. 49
    swampfoot

    The same Al Franken who was so horny to get Protect IP Act and the NDAA passed?

    What the hell is wrong with Al Franken?

  50. 50
    shockna

    However, as some others said, particularly if you have Verizon, the only other network you could possibly use is T-Mobile.

    Slight correction; T-Mobile, like AT&T, uses a GSM type network (the same kind you see in Europe, and pretty much everywhere else outside of the US and Japan), but Verizon uses its own CDMA type network (easy way to differentiate; CDMA is the one that doesn’t use SIM cards). I know that you can use Verizon phones with Leap/Cricket, if you pay for a software flash (kinda like swapping SIMs, but a huge pain in the ass), but I’ve never heard of anyone being able to use a Verizon phone on T-Mobile.

    You’re entirely right about the duopoly aspect; that’s why I was absolutely thrilled when I was able to stop working for Verizon. I went in without much of an opinion on them, and came out absolutely sickened.

  51. 51
    Crissa

    Re: 42 Alverant 15 April 2013 at 9:26 am (UTC -5)
    That’s, uhh, nice for you?

    Re: 45 Ben P 15 April 2013 at 10:11 am (UTC -5)
    Remember, AT&T today isn’t AT&T: It’s SBC that bought AT&T’s name. AT&T ‘Legacy’ is another company. SBC (and others) sued AT&T to break it up a second time, forcing them to divest their celphone sector and cable internet because they had ‘unfair advantage’ selling packaged internet, phone, and cable services. (Not to mention that SBC instantly offered that service once they bought AT&T…)

  52. 52
    Barefoot Bree

    The first time I signed an Al Franken petition is also the last. I was automatically added to his email list, and ever few weeks guess what I got? A donation request, of course! It took forever to get removed from it, too.

    I’ll check out his petitions, but until I see an opt-out button or a promise not to add me to any lists, I’ll decline to participate.

  53. 53
    deee

    In my country, operators are allowed to lock phones to their service for the duration of the contract, but the operator is required by law to provide a free unlocking service as soon as the contract ends (or is terminated early).

    Not trying to gloat here, just giving you guys something to aim for.

    I think this is a good example of the importance of being able to control your hardware. What we need is global legislation that bans all kind of DRM-schemes that prevent users from controlling their hardware and installing whatever operating system they wish on any device where the concept of an OS is applicable.

    Meanwhile, saying “no” to any products that apply such restrictions (iOS, Windows 8, etc.) is a good first step.

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