It is Illegal for Verizon to Lock Some Bootloaders (Updated)
Verizon Wireless breaks the law if the bootloaders are locked on some phones. By the end of this article, you’ll know why.
As I was recording my show for XDA TV this week, I had a moment. You can see it for yourself. I was recapping my article about Motorola and Verizon not unlocking the bootloader for the Droid RAZR. The line I delivered was, “The international version of the Droid RAZR will be shipping with an unlocked bootloader. Now, this could be that Motorola wants to compete with the Galaxy Nexus…” That’s when I had my moment, and added, “which is funny because that’s also going on Verizon.”
In that moment, I realized that Motorola must be lying. Why can some devices and manufacturers unlock their bootloaders, and not others? But I was wrong. (Congratulations, Motorola, on your newfound sense of freedom!) The Galaxy Nexus is special for two reasons. First, it’s Google’s phone. Second, it’s likely that the Galaxy Nexus’ LTE radio uses Block C frequencies.
Not many people know what the C Block is. I didn’t either. Andrew Krug of AndroidActivists told me about it, and we spent the night poring over research. Verizon has the largest 4G network because they bought it in 2008. At the time, the 700 MHz radio frequencies brought you your favorite broadcast television shows. When television switched from analog to digital, they became your 4G networks.
When the Federal Communications Commission announced the auction to sell the 700 MHz band, they broke it into five different “blocks”, each with different regulations according to how widespread they are. This created a Goldilocks sort of situation. Block D has the largest area, but comes with more clauses than malls have during the Christmas season. Plus, you’re supposed to be a public service agency. Blocks A, B, and E are small potatoes. But Block C was just right. Few regulations, lots of breadth.
It was so good, in fact, that the FCC tacked on a few more regulations, encouraged by Google. Unless Block C sold for less than $4.6 billion, it comes with an open access provision. Google pledged $4.6 billion to ensure Block C comes with the open access provision. The open access provision requires Verizon to “not deny, limit, or restrict the ability of their customers to use the devices and applications of their choice on the licensee’s C Block network.” It goes on to say, “The potential for excessive bandwidth demand alone shall not constitute grounds for denying, limiting or restricting access to the network.” Verizon bought Block C and tried to have the provisions removed. They failed. The provisions are still there, Verizon has the Block C license. That means if a device uses the Block C frequencies, Verizon cannot insist what apps or firmware it runs. It also means they can’t limit data plans for those devices. Which is odd, because I remember Verizon dropping unlimited data plans back in July 2011.
So the question is, do any devices use Block C frequencies? Yes. Some are called Hotspots. Others are called the HTC Thunderbolt. There may be more, those are simply the two I know about and confirmed. The Hotspots are a non-issue. They comply with FCC regulations as far as I’m aware. The HTC Thunderbolt, on the other hand, does not. In the list of rules and exceptions for the Block C license, it says this:
Handset locking prohibited. No licensee may disable features on handsets it provides to customers, to the extent such features are compliant with the licensee’s standards pursuant to paragraph (b) of this section, nor configure handsets it provides to prohibit use of such handsets on other providers’ networks.
In case you’re wondering, Paragraph (b) is what I previously quoted from the FCC’s open access provisions document. Last I checked, HTCdev does not offer a bootloader unlocking solution for the HTC Thunderbolt. Is this HTC’s fault? No. Their website states, “HTC is committed to assisting customers in unlocking bootloaders for HTC devices. However, certain models may not be unlockable due to operator restrictions.” And having personally met the HTCdev team, I believe them.
That leaves Verizon. Good ol’ Verizon. Breaking the law since May, at the latest. If you owned a Thunderbolt, please file a complaint with the FCC. Select Wireless Telephone > Billing, Service, Privacy, Number Portability and other issues > Online Form. Fill out your information, scroll down, fill out 1 and 2, skip 3 and 4. Then in 5, tell the FCC that your phone’s bootloader was sold to you locked and still is, even though it uses Block C (reag) frequencies.
Don’t worry. The FCC said they’re committed to enforcing the open access provision. We’ll see how fast Verizon turns things around. If you know of any other devices that use frequencies between 746 and 757 MHz, and also 776 to 787 MHz, please send a message to me or any Portal News Writer. Thanks.
UPDATE: David Ruddock over at Android Police was kind enough to further explain the situation. For those of you coming from his article, or who share his criticisms, this article is not erroneous or short-sighted. David’s article does an excellent job of sobering us to how difficult the struggle will be to get the FCC to move. The loophole Verizon will undoubtedly use to excuse their actions is in the phrase, “reasonable network management,” from paragraph (b)(1), though we don’t know that for sure because Verizon has never addressed the issue. But David’s points do not invalidate this article for two reasons:
1) David’s assessment of the standards by which “reasonable network management” is determined are fairly simple, and I say fairly accurate. Do the other major cellular providers use the same security and management standards? Yes. Okay, seems reasonable. But locking bootloaders is not “reasonable” by the same standard. Most carriers do not exact this method of network management. Therefore, not necessarily reasonable.
2) The issue of Verizon’s double-standard concerning bootloaders is entirely ignored, even though this article began with it, and is based on it. Verizon will supposedly defend locking bootloaders because rooting and flashing pose a threat to network security and management (which is debatable), and therefore reasonable to do. However, they do not require the bootloaders to be locked on all their devices. Samsung’s bootloaders are unlocked, including on phones like the Galaxy Nexus and the Samsung Droid Charge. Why not allow HTC, Motorola, LG, etc. to unlock their devices? This double-standard invalidates the “reasonable network management” defense.
These questions must be satisfied for Verizon to be within the law.