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Tom Wheeler turns against his former employer, the CTIA

Phone unlocking -- defeating OEM and carrier software constraints that prevent users from freely switching between carriers with otherwise compatible devices -- has been a subject of much contention in the U.S.  Unlocking was ruled illegal -- unless your carrier allows it -- via the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act [PDF] (DMCA).

Then in July 2010, the Library of Congress (LoC) ruled on language in the DMCA as it pertained to cell phones, arguing phone unlocking was legal.  But in an Oct. 2012 re-review, the LoC Librarian sided with OEMs like Apple, Inc. (AAPL) ruling that unlocking was actually illegal.  For consumers the ruling meant that they could void their warranties if they unlocked.  And it also stifled the development of unlocking tools, as participating in such efforts could now earn you fines and/or prison time.

But a fresh push to legalize unlocking is coming from new U.S. Federal Communications Commission's nominated chairman Tom Wheeler, who may replace Julius Genachowski, who in March left the FCC to serve as a senior fellow at the Aspen Institute, a non-profit think-tank.

FCC Tom Wheeler
Mr. Wheeler (seen to the right of President Obama) once worked for the CTIA, who is a top opponent of unlocking. [Image Source:]

Mr. Wheeler comments:

Who knew the Library of Congress had this far of a reach?  I am a strong supporter of intellectual property rights. At the same point in time, I believe that when I as a consumer or you as a consumer, or anyone have fulfilled our commitment and we've paid off our contract, that we ought to have the right to use that device and move it across carriers as we see fit. I look forward to working on this issue and resolving this issue to give consumers flexibility.

I don't know whether it [should be] a permanent exemption [to the DMCA], whether it is a rewrite of the Copyright Act, or what the appropriate solution is, but I do believe there needs to be a solution and consumers should have the right to unlock their phones after they've lived up to their side of the agreement.

His decision to stand up for unlocking is somewhat interesting.

Earlier in his career he served as a lobbyist for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) and the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), as well as being a venture capitalist investing in numerous online/wireless business firms.  The CTIA in particular vigorously opposed unlocking, writing it "did not meet the burden of proof" to secure a Fair Use exemption to the DMCA.

In other words, Chairman Wheeler has done a 180, going from lobbying for a trade group that was one of unlocking's largest opponents, to heading the federal government's top wireless regulatory agency and championing unlocking.

His comments come at a critical moment -- his nomination hearing before the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate.  His nomination is expected to go through, despite some controversy over his remarks which indicated he might have allowed AT&T, Inc. (Tto purchase Deutsche Telekom AG (ETR:DTE) subsidiary T-Mobile USA,  a move which his predecessor Mr. Genachowski fought to block.  He dismissed his blog on the topic as "hypothetical speculation".

It is currently illegal to unlock devices like the iPhone. [Image Source: Engadget]

Mr. Wheeler has at least one other supporter in the FCC, regarding his unlocking views.  FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai -- a Republican serving on the FCC -- is a vocal advocate of unlocking.  While he says it's not the place of the FCC to authorize it, he urged Congress too, calling the ban ridiculous.  He remarked in an op-ed, "No one seriously believes that unlocking a cellphone to switch carriers is equivalent to piracy."

Source: ArsTechnica

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RE: This is backwards
By Motoman on 6/20/2013 6:49:45 PM , Rating: 4
F%ck that. Locking it *at all* should be illegal.

Cell phone service should be *exactly* the same as landline service.

Go to K-Mart. Buy a phone. Arrange service with whatever service provider you want. Change service to any other provider at any other time without any penalty. And no contracts...period.

It should be *exactly* that way. And before anyone wants to whine about losing the option for subsidized phones via long-term contract...firstly, all that really does is obfuscate the true cost of the phone. Secondly, if you can't afford to buy the phone you want outright, USE A CREDIT CARD. Or get a loan. Or maybe even buy a cheaper phone that you *can* afford.

RE: This is backwards
By Uncle on 6/20/2013 9:06:58 PM , Rating: 2
I agree with you. This argument was brought up years ago and the Industry convinced government in the US and Canada had to follow along, that cell phones are not just a phone like a landline, they are a smart phone, a phone and computer combined. That argument won out and the industry has been reaping the rewards ever since.

RE: This is backwards
By rs2 on 6/20/2013 9:38:45 PM , Rating: 2
Go to K-Mart. Buy a phone.

That's the problem right there. Most people *don't* buy their cell phones, they lease them. And generally the company doing the leasing is free to set terms of usage.

That said, I agree that when someone does purchase a mobile device outright it should work exactly as you describe. Same applies when the lease period expires and the user is now the owner of the device.

RE: This is backwards
By Mint on 6/22/2013 9:36:29 AM , Rating: 2
That's the problem right there. Most people *don't* buy their cell phones, they lease them. And generally the company doing the leasing is free to set terms of usage.

Exactly. How people like Moto don't understand that is beyond me.

What's important, though, is that when we do actually buy a phone, we can unlock it.

RE: This is backwards
By bigboxes on 6/20/2013 9:58:57 PM , Rating: 2
Wow. Totally agree. If congress wants to pass some legislation they should make it illegal to for the carriers to subsidize cell phones. Just as they did when they broke up the original AT&T they need to make it SOP that you purchase the phones at retail. That would drive down cost of the phones that are priced artificially high to begin with. I'm sure that Samsung, Apple and the others don't want unsubsidized phones to become the norm. With no automatic locking into contracts when you purchase your new phone it would force carriers to provide the best service and customer service or lose their customers. Like any other business. Phone makers and chip makers can put all of the bands used by the big four on one chip. We've gotten to the point that the chips are small enough to do so.

I won't hold my breath though. We all know that big money and special interest control any attempt at change. Democrats and Republicans alike (and all politicians) feed at the same cash trough.

RE: This is backwards
By Mint on 6/22/2013 9:50:53 AM , Rating: 2
That would drive down cost of the phones that are priced artificially high to begin with. I'm sure that Samsung, Apple and the others don't want unsubsidized phones to become the norm.
There's no indication that would happen. T-Mobile, for example, is selling phones for the same price but using equipment installment plans to show a lower up-front cost.

What we need more is legislation to make clear to the consumer what his total commitment is, i.e. the front page of any contract to an individual for any goods with a monthly commitment must have a 72-point font illustrating total cost of the contract and another number showing maximum cancellation cost.

People will be less likely to buy phones & plans they can't afford when they see a $2600 contract instead of a misleading $200 price.

RE: This is backwards
By cbf on 6/24/2013 1:33:46 PM , Rating: 2
The T-Mobile plan is much more sensible and transparent. They essentially give you a loan to buy the phone. At the end of the 20 months or so, the phone is yours and your monthly bill goes down.

The problem is that T-Mobile is too small a carrier to by itself cause the price of phones to go down, although the Lumia 521 at $150 ($130 at Walmart) free and clear unsubsized is a good indicator of the way things could be.

RE: This is backwards
By fic2 on 6/24/2013 1:53:02 PM , Rating: 2
Agreed. I recently bought outright a Nokia Lumia 521 for my girlfriend. I/she owns it. But she has to get permission from T-Mobile to unlock it so she can use it in Europe later this summer. Who would put up with this type of crap for any other product?

Equivalent would be if you bought a car from GM and had to use GM gas until GM "unlocked" it for you so you could use other gas stations.

"Can anyone tell me what MobileMe is supposed to do?... So why the f*** doesn't it do that?" -- Steve Jobs

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