Obama Signs Bill Permitting Unlocking of Cellphones

President Obama has signed bipartisan legislation that makes it easier for Americans to defect to a new wireless carrier without having to buy a new device.

Through the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, consumers can unlock their cell phones without violating copyright laws, said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), in a statement. The legislation reinstates a 2010 rulemaking and directs the Librarian of Congress to consider whether other wireless devices such as tablet computers should be eligible for unlocking, he said.

“Even though the vast majority of Americans enjoy upgrading to new devices once their contract terms are fulfilled, we recognize that some consumers may want to unlock their devices to move to another carrier,” said Joe Carpenter, vice president of government affairs with CTIA-The Wireless Association, in a statement.

Lawmakers, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and consumer advocates hailed the legislation as a win for consumers. The House and Senate unanimously passed the legislation after more than 114,000 Americans petitioned the White House last year for the right to unlock their cell phones, according to Public Knowledge, a consumer group in Washington, D.C.

“Consumers expect to be able to use phones they have purchased on any network of their choice, and this bill delivers on that expectation by allowing consumers to break digital locks that artificially tie phones to a single network,” said Laura Moy, staff attorney at Public Knowledge, in a statement. “Although carriers sometimes unlock phones voluntarily, not all carriers will unlock phones, and those who do will not unlock all phones. The new unlocking law ensures that consumers can unlock their phones even when carriers refuse.”

In December 2013, CTIA-The Wireless Association announced that AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon Wireless agreed to adopt principles for the unlocking of wireless phones and tablets. The association cautioned that an unlocked device may not be compatible with another network or the phone may only support certain services such as voice. 

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