Why the Cellular Unlocking Bill Doesn't Really Matter - The UpStream

Why the Cellular Unlocking Bill Doesn't Really Matter

posted Friday Jul 18, 2014 by Scott Ertz

Why the Cellular Unlocking Bill Doesn't Really Matter

This week, the US Senate passed a bill making the unlocking of personal cellular devices legal. This bill does not include any conditions that would allow for bulk unlocking, or the ability for someone else to unlock your personal device for you. This language, which was making passing the bill nearly impossible, was included in the House version of the bill, but removed to get it passed through the Senate. Once the bills are identical, it will be sent to the President.

These bills come after the expiration of an exemption to the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which allowed for unlocking of personal devices, expired in 2013, making the practice illegal once again. By passing this as a law, as opposed to the odd Library of Congress exemption that was granted before, we do not have to worry about it expiring in the future.

The important question here is how will this affect the lives of wireless phone owners? Well, the short answer is, for most people it will matter very little. Here's why; the exemption and now the law are targeted to allow people to take their existing phone and change carriers with it. Unfortunately, that isn't entirely the way the industry works, mostly because of the way spectrum is handled in the US.

Let's take, for example, the Samsung Galaxy S5, offered by most major carriers. The phones for all carriers are nearly identical, with one glaring difference: the spectrum on which they run. The CDMA version, offered by Verizon and Sprint, shares almost no bands with the GSM version, offered by AT&T and T-Mobile. This means that if you wanted to switch from AT&T to Verizon, you still could not keep your phone, no matter how much you complain to the carrier or Congress.

Now, this is not to say there is zero benefit to handset unlocking. If you are a Sprint customer and want to switch to Verizon, this bill would allow you to unlock the handset and accomplish that goal. It would not, however, allow you to transfer to AT&T or T-Mobile. So, while it does not eliminate the handset silos, it does shrink the quantity for a dozen or so to about 2. This, theoretically, increases your options, but not by as much as it might seem.

Sprint has allowed transferring of handsets to and from their subsidiaries several times in the past, never with much interest. They have even offered the ability to take your handset to compatible carriers dating back to 2007. This option was also never really used, bringing us back to the question of why. It would appear that this is either a bill created to make people feel good about a Congress that has accomplished very little in the public's eyes, or a bill created by a group of people who didn't take the time to research it before bowing to the public pressures of other people who don't understand what they are asking for.

Either way, if this bill does become law, it will change very little for the general population. It will, however, make the lives of those who like to alter their devices significantly easier.

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