Unlocked Phones and the DMCA

How & Why to Unlock a Phone

Shortly after the DMCA exemption for cellphone unlocking was lifted, making it illegal, a petition appeared on Whitehouse.gov.  The petition quickly gained the required 100,000 signatures to require a Presidential Administration response.  The FCC has also chimed in, indicating that it is looking into the issue. The Commissioner is also encouraging Congress to look into it as well.

Apparently, the support for this exemption’s reinstatement is growing, despite what the mobile carrier lobby was able to accomplish.

What you Can and Cannot Do

The list is short and sweet, and is fairly simple as I understand it.

  1. You can unlock a phone purchased prior to 26-Jan-2013 without permission
  2. You cannot unlock a phone purchased after 26-Jan-2013 without permission
  3. You can ask a carrier for permission to unlock a cell phone purchased after 26-Jan-2013. The general guidelines are that you have to have had the phone for 60 to 90 days (depending on the carrier), be current in your payments, and have an account in good standing
  4. If the carrier says no, and you unlock the phone anyway, you risk a 5 year jail term and up to a $500,000 fine

You can also avoid the whole mess by buying an unlocked phone in the first place.  Many carriers subsidize or “loan” you the money necessary to buy a high end cell phone.  You pay it back  by locking yourself into a 1-2 year contract and agreeing to pay more for your voice and data plans.

Many US consumers are used to this practice and don’t understand how their total cost of ownership of that iPhone, Samsung S3, or other high end device is markedly higher than if you paid full price for the phone (usually $500 to $800) and purchased an unlimited voice and data plan. Some of these can be had for $50 a month or less.  You have to shop around,  check their coverage and device compatibility, etc.

What I Recommend You Do

This list is also short and sweet, and rather simple

  1. If you can afford it, buy an unlocked phone from the get-go. Once unlocked, you can take the phone where ever you want, month to month, if you like. Pay as you go plans can be very affordable, very convenient and easy to use with your device
  2. Carriers will still try to sell you a fixed term voice and data contract. You need to be aware of what you’re buying and only buy the plan or plans that make sense for you.

If you go with an unlocked phone and a pay as you go plan, you can save a lot of money over the usable life of the device. Provided that the device can take full advantage of 4G and LTE on your carrier or carriers of choice, you could chase after the best plan from month to month regardless of carrier. At the very least,  you’ll need to understand what communications bands your device uses, and then match those up to the carriers you have available in your area and then make the best choice for you.

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