FCC mulls options for reversing the cellphone unlocking ban
A petition to end the ban on unauthorized cell phone unlocking may have gotten some attention in high places.
The Federal Communications Commission now plans to investigate whether the ban harms economic competitiveness, and what the executive branch's options are for changing the law, TechCrunch reports.
“It’s something that we will look at at the FCC to see if we can and should enable consumers to use unlocked phones,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said at a TechCrunch event. He noted that the ban “raises competition concerns; it raises innovation concerns.”
Last year, the Librarian of Congress decided not to exempt unauthorized cell phone unlocking from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. While the ruling alone doesn't outlaw unlocking, it does take away the legal protection that users would have if wireless carriers decided to sue.
The ruling lead to a petition on whitehouse.gov, asking for the Librarian to rescind his decision, or for Congress to make unlocking permanently illegal. The petition gathered the 100,000 signatures necessary to prompt a White House response. So far the administration hasn't given an official statement.
Keep in mind that unlocking a cell phone has little to do with the contract you sign with a wireless carrier. Most carriers allow you to unlock a phone during your contract period as long as your account is in good standing for a certain amount of time (the iPhone on AT&T being a notable exception), but unlocking the phone still leaves you on the hook for monthly service payments. The ban mainly affects people who need an immediate unlock after buying a new phone, or who can't get permission from their carriers.
As I noted last week, the Librarian only reviews DMCA exemptions every three years, and a bill from Congress would likely take a long time to pass. As an alternative, it's not clear how much power the FCC has as an independent agency, but looking into the matter is a start.