As of Wednesday, February 11th, many smartphone owners in the United States will be able to ask their mobile carriers to unlock their phones—for free. Previously, mobile device users have had to pay extra—sometimes a lot extra—in order to get their hands on unlocked phones. Back when Apple first launched the iPhone, for instance, the company’s exclusivity agreement to AT&T made unlocked versions of the device hot commodities.
Since then, carriers have been willing to sell unlocked smartphones, but usually at a price tag of around $700. In comparison, most buyers in recent years have paid between $100 and $200 for new smartphones, a price that the mobile carriers were will to subsidize because they were selling phones bundled with a two-year service contract.
A New Set of Rules
Now, though, everything is about to change. A new code passed down by the Cellular Telephone Industries Association has stipulated that, as of February 11th, all mobile carriers must unlock their customers’ phones, for free, upon request. The one caveat is that users will only be eligible to request an unlock once the terms of their two-year contract have expired. At that point, customers will theoretically be able to unlock their devices and use them on different carriers.
Most major mobile carriers have agreed to comply with the CTIA’s new code. These include AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile. The code also requires the carriers to let their customers know when a phone is up for unlocking.
Fairness and Freedom
From the looks of it, the new CTIA code strikes a good balance between fairness for the carriers and new freedom for the customers.
The mobile carriers will still be able to lock in business with two-year contracts. This system has served companies like AT&T and Sprint well over the years, as Apple, Samsung, and other device manufacturers have continued to innovate and flood the market with exciting new smartphone models. Since many customers are ready to upgrade to a shiny and new smartphone model after a year or two, the two-year contract model has been ideal for mobile carriers, consistently driving network usage.
However, customers that don’t want to buy a new device every two years have generally been out of luck at the end of their contract period. Of course, they could continue using the same phone and mobile carrier outside of a contract, but they had virtually no option to switch to a new carrier without purchasing a new phone. It’s a system that has made it difficult for customers to explore mobile network possibilities without making a multi-year agreement.
With the new nationwide unlocking movement, customers will have new levels of freedom when it comes to choosing the right mobile carrier. The change could also help curb the two-year phone cycle that many Americans seem to follow. And if more people are willing to hold onto their phones for longer periods of time, perhaps that would in turn push device developers to up their game and find new ways to encourage purchases. Whatever happens, it’s tough to see a scenario where the new CTIA rules will impact customers negatively.