Cell Phone Unlocking Bill – Expert Analysis of Why it Sucks

Cell Phone Unlocking Bill – Expert Analysis of Why it Sucks

We all remember the story on this one. It was our moment of triumph. The moment our collective voices were heard across the Capitol, which yielded a law nearly 2 years later. The glorious Cell Phone Unlocking Bill, finally came into full force in the beginning of February. As of now, it is perfectly legal to have your device SIM unlocked anywhere in the United States (that is, until the provision expires yet again towards the end of this year). There are so many things that went wrong into the creation of the current “patch” that it is difficult to pin point a place to start. Having said that, we will start with the obvious, which is what they should have done.

As you are likely aware, the provision that protects the right to unlock our devices is part of the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act). This was included in here due to it being believed that unlocking the SIM in a device would amount to violating IP rights on the software used to lock it in the first place. This was the reasoning used a few years ago to remove said exemption by the Librarian of Congress. Our compounded efforts ended up placing the exemption back in there. Why am I pointing this as a mistake? Because it should have not gone back in as part of the DMCA to begin with. This was the first step towards modernizing the laws in the United States and getting them adapted for the 21st century, which we have been part of for the last 15 years. The better course of action would have been to set it as a separate law, away from intellectual property jargon which has nothing to do with any of this, and properly set it as a stand alone law, away from the influence of people completely unqualified to judge the need (or lack thereof) for such a law. Surely, one can add provisions that are set to expire for many things, but why is there a need to set one up on being allowed to use personal, legally purchased goods, in any manner that we see fit (so as long as we are not breaking other laws, of course)?

Now, lets focus on the matter at hand. We have a “bill”, which is in full force. The bill basically is aimed at doing 3 things right now:

  1. Allows consumers to legally unlock the SIM card on their devices, thus allowing them to jump carriers while taking their devices with them;
  2. Makes the use of 3rd party software to achieve unlocking perfectly legal. Hooray! You no longer need to feel like you are looking to buy illegal drugs whenever you are going to unlock a phone;
  3. Forces the carriers to cooperate with you towards unlocking your devices.

Point #3 is the sticking point of this entire article. CTIA, which is an entity that is nothing but a special interest group (aka lobbyist) consisting of most carriers as well as a few handset manufacturers, put a metric ton of pressure while the crafting of the bill was taking place. The result is that even they had to do a few concessions in order to be able to have any say in the making of this bill. To be more precise, once the law went into full effect at the start of February, the carriers were supposed to take certain steps that would aid their consumers in the unlocking of their devices. Many of the carriers must have thought the law was fiction or some figment of their imagination because only one of them has done something to address everything in their to-do list, and that was Verizon (and it was forced due to them buying block C last year, which basically forced them to have every device on their network unlocked). The other 3 major US carriers lack in certain areas. Sina Khanifar, who was one of the major organizers of the original push for the legalization of SIM Unlocking, has written a blog article with a very detailed description of how each carrier fell short of the expectations. The following is a chart he made to summarize his findings

SIM Unlocking Chart

The scores are somewhat deceptive for Verizon and not really all that surprising for Sprint. For instance, (and I will take Sprint as I have a major pet peeve with their unlocking system due to personal experience), Sprint’s take on this entire thing is comical at best. While I am not going to bother in pasting the unintelligible dribble that is their unlocking policy into this post, I will condense it to the following:

  1. If the device you have is CDMA, there is no SIM unlocking due to a technological difference between CDMA and GSM;
  2. If your device is equipped with a SIM slot (namely any phone that has LTE), they will only unlock it for “international travel”, which means that they only unlock any bands that are not used in the US, despite the device having the bands required to work on other carriers;
  3. When an unlock is requested, they will go about giving you the “MSL”, which stands for Master Subsidy Lock. For those of you familiar with CDMA programming, the name might sounds familiar. For those of you who aren’t, the MSL is a code that unlocks the programming portion of the device. This allows carriers to push OTA programming to the device to set the carrier settings on the NV partition. Things like your phone number and your subscriber number get stored there. Now, you are likely asking yourselves why is this required for SIM unlocking the phone? The answer is, it isn’t. They simply will not unlock the SIM portion for domestic use;

Now, after the beginning of February, you’d expect that the aforementioned would be out the window, right? Well, it kinda is… but only for devices that have come out AFTER beginning of February of this year. In other words, if you jumped onto that shinny iPhone 6 Plus – 128 GB edition back in September, congratulations! The moment you decide to try and take it to a different carrier, you will be sporting a brand new device to match your iPod 6 Plus – 128 GB edition, as you will be unable to use it outside of Sprint (as they will not unlock it). Same goes for all you Nexus 6, G3, S5 adopters. Needless to say, most of these devices can be unlocked via other means (thankfully) but the point still stands. The carrier still has the upper hand and has far too much power when it comes to letting you unlock it, regardless of whether you have paid off your contract/balance on your device. Oh, and good luck trying to put an outside phone in Sprint’s network.

Each one of the major carriers has a different thing that makes you want to smash your face against the keyboard though. It is truly uncertain what will happen later this year when the provision expires yet again. However, we ask that you write to your Congressmen and let them know that the fight for your cellular freedom is not over and that you as a consumer have a right to do as you please with things that you legally purchased. We still have about 75 years left before the turn of the century. Who knows? We might get it right sometime…

You can find the rest of the blog article by following this link.

We’d like to give a big shout to Sina Khanifar. Keep on fighting the good fight!

About author


I have been an active member of xda-developers since 2005 and have gone through various roles in my time here. I am Former Portal Administrator, and currently part of the administrator team while maintaining my writer status for the portal. In real life, I am a Chemical Engineer turned Realtor in the Miami area.