UK regulator Ofcom bans sale of network-locked handsets from December 2021
Carriers in the UK will be banned from selling handsets locked to their network from next year. Media regulator Ofcom announced the rule change, citing the need to encourage network switching (via the BBC). At present, although UK networks can still apply a network lock to devices sold through their retail operations many have switched to selling unlocked generic versions already, including O2, Three, Sky Mobile, and Virgin Mobile. The remaining major networks – EE/BT, Vodafone, and Tesco Mobile sell a combination of locked and unlocked handsets.
The traditional argument for locking has been one of security, aimed at reducing fraud and making it more difficult for thieves to dispose of stolen devices. However, Ofcom believes that the complicated and often flawed process required to unlock a handset at the end of a statutory contract period was deterring people from switching to the best service for them, forcing them into sticking with their current provider, and possibly being persuaded to buy an unnecessary new handset.
After proposing the changes last year, Ofcom research found that customers looking to unlock their phones often faced long delays in receiving a code, and sometimes the code didn’t work when it finally did turn up. Additionally, the study found that networks weren’t always clear about whether a handset was unlocked at point-of-sale, leading to nasty surprises for the end-user, further down the line.
The legislation will bring the UK into line with forthcoming European Union regulations under the European Electronic Communications Code, despite the looming specter of Brexit. The UK has pledged to comply with the same standards as the EU on mobile telecoms.
Other regulations announced today include an obligation for networks to offer a clear summary of all elements of their contract, with documentation in accessible formats such as braille and large print options. Customers will also be given enhanced rights to leave mid-contract if their deal is significantly changed. There will also be an investigation into simplifying the process for fixed-line broadband customers wishing to switch from copper wire to fiber optic providers, where there is no automated switching process currently in place.
The new rules on handset sales will apply from December 2021, with the other changes imposed from mid-2022.