Heading for a Hollow Victory on Phone Unlocking

Photo of chained phoneThe news that the ranking Republican and Democratic members of the house Judiciary committee plan to introduce legislation to legalize the unlocking of mobile phones by consumers greatly increases the chances that Congress will reverse the refusal of the Library of Congress’ Copyright Office to approve the practice. But despite the excitement among tech activists, the victory is likely to be largely meaningless in practice. The only real beneficiaries will be owners of very new phones who are looking to use them on foreign networks without paying exorbitant roaming charges.

The problem is that while altering the software that ties a phone to a specific network removes artificially barriers to interoperability, formidable technical barriers remain in place. The convergence of fourth-generation networking technology on a standard called LTE was supposed to ease or eliminate the problem, but if anything, it has made matters worse. The problem is that U.S. carriers are all implementing LTE differently, specifically on different frequencies, and phone makes have not been able (or perhaps willing) to incorporate enough radios to make the phones interoperate. For example, Apple sells different LTE iPads for Verizon and AT&T and even though they are sold unlocked, they cannot be used on each other’s networks.

Verizon and AT&T are both rolling out LTE on spectrum in the 700 MHz band formerly used for analog television. But they are using different portions of the  band. And the Federal Communications Commission has not required AT&T and Verizon to act to make their networks or their phones compatible, although it would take no great technical effort to do so. Sprint is deploying LTE at the same 1900 MHz frequency it uses for existing 3G and voice services. T-Mobile will be offering services at 1700 MHz. This means that no two carriers are offering compatible services.

If you are willing to forgo LTE, you can get some partial compatibility. AT&T and T-Mobile phones will work on each other;s networks, though you can’t count on the fastest data performance. Those phones can change networks simply by swapping SIM cards. You should be able to get an unlocked Verizon phone registered on the Sprint network, and vice versa, but performance of a Sprint phone on Verizon may suffer if the phone does not support Verizon’s 800 MHz service. And giving up LTE means giving up a lot.

In other words, the hubbub over phone unlocking has been disproportional to what is likely to be achieved. Consumers may win a purely symbolic victory, but in practical terms, their phones will be as locked as ever. The time to have made a fuss was back in 2007, when the FCC was setting the rules for the 700 MHz auction. Everyone knew going in that AT&T and Verizon were going to emerge as the winners, and required interoperability of  their LTE services would have made a huge difference. But that ship has now sailed.

The carriers will make a big show of opposing any unlocking legislation. I think they do this partly because they simply do not like being told what to do and partly to keep their lobbyists in practice. In fact, the bill that is likely to emerge from the Judiciary leadership will require them to do things they are mostly or entirely already doing. It will be a feel-good victory for advocates, but it will change little or nothing.