Alarmed at what it describes as inadequate competition and consumer choice in the wireless sector, the Department of Commerce is petitioning federal regulators to write rules mandating that carriers unlock cell phones, tablets and other mobile device, freeing users to operate their devices on other networks.
The Commerce Department's appeal to the Federal Communications Commission for making unlocking a standard industry practice echoes a similar position staked out by the White House, which endorsed unlocking in response to an online petition earlier this year.
"Americans should be able to use their mobile devices on whatever networks they choose and have their devices unlocked without hassle," Lawrence Strickling, assistant secretary of Commerce and the administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), said in a statement.
Unlocking Mobile Devices Good for CIOs, IT Managers, Users and BYOD
The NTIA's petition comes as CIOs and enterprise IT managers are increasingly warming to the idea of permitting workers to use personal devices for work. The momentum behind BYOD policies could build further if consumers were given greater flexibility to use their devices as they choose.
Image credits: Jana Blank; Alexander Shirokov
Some consumer advocates quickly hailed the petition from Commerce, which they hope will help spur competition in an industry where they see market power heavily concentrated in a few national incumbents.
"For the wireless market to stay competitive, it's important to reduce barriers to switching cell phone companies. The cost of having to buy or switch to new handsets can often be a significant barrier," said Sherwin Siy, vice president of legal affairs at the digital rights group Public Knowledge.
CTIA Argues the Wireless Sector Is Competitive As Is
The reaction from CTIA, the principal industry trade group representing the wireless industry, was rather different. The group says that it is still reviewing the Commerce Department petition, but reiterated its oft-made argument that the wireless sector is vibrant and competitive, while carriers have brought hundreds of unlocked devices to the market.
"When it comes to mobile devices, the facts make it clear that the U.S. wireless marketplace is delivering tremendous value to consumers, in the form of high-end and affordable devices, post- and pre-paid options, and with the world's most advanced devices being launched first in the United States," Scott Bergmann, CTIA's vice president of regulatory affairs, said in a statement. "Indeed, given the plethora of choices in the marketplace -- more than 240 unlocked devices are available for purchase from a wireless carrier, retail store or directly from the manufacturer -- consumers continue to benefit from the competitive market for mobile services."
Further, the group penned a blog post on Tuesday warning of the technical issues that can impede consumers switching networks even if their phones are unlocked, including the different spectrum bands and technology specifications that carriers use. "The engineering reality: An unlocked phone doesn't necessarily mean an interoperable phone, or one that you can take to any carrier that you want," wrote John Marinho, CTIA's vice president of technology and cybersecurity.
The Legal Question of Mobile Device Unlocking
The original petition on the White House website asking for administration support for an unlocking mandate came ahead of a looming shift in copyright policy that could criminalize the practice. Last year, the Library of Congress repealed an exemption under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act that had permitted the unlocking of lawfully required mobile devices.
[Related: Will It Soon be Legal to Unlock Your Cell Phone? ]
In July, the House Judiciary Committee passed a bill on a bipartisan basis that would repeal that ruling as it concerns cell phones, and direct the librarian of Congress to evaluate whether the exemption should apply to tablets and other mobile devices. That would legalize the practice of unlocking phones, but not entail the mandate that carriers unlock devices upon request, as the Commerce Department is asking.
Language in the bill limiting consumers' unlocking privileges to the authorized access to a provider's network helped win CTIA's support of the legislation -- the group warns against "the bulk unlocking of handsets and arbitrage of the handset subsidy system, which can harm consumers and facilitate the sale of stolen smartphones."
Leaders of the Judiciary Committee from both parties, including Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the lead backer of the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, praised the NTIA's petition in a statement.
"We applaud NTIA's recognition of the need to restore the exemption that permits consumers to unlock their cell phones and other mobile devices without the approval of their wireless provider," the lawmakers said. "This is an issue of consumer choice and flexibility, plain and simple."
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.
Read more about mobile/wireless in CIO's Mobile/Wireless Drilldown.