Researcher faults unlocking policies from Sprint and T-Mobile

Both carriers only meet half of the voluntary commitments, Sina Khanifar says

Sprint and T-Mobile don't fully comply with a series of voluntary smartphone and tablet unlocking policies, even though both companies were praised last week by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for doing so, according to an independent analysis performed by a former developer of unlocking software.

"Sprint and T-Mobile aren't delivering on half the commitments they made to the FCC," said Sina Khanifar, a Web developer who conducted the analysis on his own by comparing carrier unlocking policies with a voluntary Code the carriers committed to follow.

Khanifar produced unlocking software prior to 2006 to unlock some Motorola phones, but he hasn't written unlocking software in several years, he said in an interview on Tuesday.

Khanifer said that when the FCC congratulated the nation's biggest carriers for their voluntary unlocking policies in a blog post last week titled, it sounded too good to be true. So Khanifer investigated.

Of the six voluntary principles adopted by the carriers, Khanifar said Sprint and T-Mobile have so far failed to provide a lenient unlocking policy for postpaid devices, as called for in the Code. In addition, T-Mobile also failed with a lenient policy for prepaid phones and doesn't indicate in its policy whether it will notify customers when they are eligible for unlocking.

He also argued that Sprint's written unlocking policy doesn't meet the Code's standard for being "clear, concise and accessible." And its policy refuses to unlock phones for any military personnel who has unlocked a device in the previous 12 months, which Khanifar said is outside the Code's guidelines.

"What happens if a user's phone or tablet is damaged or breaks while deployed?" he said.

Khanifar studied the online unlocking policies of the carriers and compared those policies to the six voluntary principles they all adopted in the CTIA Consumer Code.

Both Sprint and T-Mobile were asked for comment on Khanifer's findings, but hadn't responded as of late Tuesday.

Khanifar put his findings into a scorecard posted on his website.

Both Verizon and AT&T scored well in his findings, he said, noting that Verizon doesn't lock any 4G LTE or 3G devices and the remainder of its devices can be unlocked with a simple code. Verizon unlocking policy scores well, in part, because the FCC required it to be lenient as part of its purchase of 700MHz spectrum in the Block C auction with the agency, Khanifar said.

Khanifar noted that many reports, including one in Computerworld, described the FCC's note and assumed the agency was correct in offering its congratulations. The FCC declined to comment on Kanifar's findings.

In general, Khanifar doesn't believe the Code is sufficient to meet consumers needs, even where it is fully followed. Consumers need third-party unlocking software that is permanently legal so they don't have to rely on the carriers, he said.

Most carriers have LTE networks for interoperability, so an unlocked phone could be easier to use on another carrier, assuming the frequencies are the same.

Khanifar said he believes there are many smartphone and tablet owners in the U.S. who want to unlock their devices and move to other carriers. He estimated that number at 100,000 devices a year.

"...It's your phone, so you should do whatever the hell you want with it," he said. An unlocked phone has far more value if resold than a locked one, he added.

Khanifar also faulted the Code for the way it was conceived. He said the FCC opted to have the carriers sign the voluntary Code in lieu of tighter regulation in late 2013. "I think the FCC came up with that approach because creating new regulations is just a headache for the FCC, so the Code would get some of the work done without going all the way," he said.

What the carriers came up with are "confusing" unlocking policies. "Sprint's policy is particularly confusing," he said.

He also said the Code fails to include a commitment by carriers to accept unlocked devices on their networks. "If you unlock your phone, you need to be able to take it to another carrier and use it," he said.

He also noted that Congress passed a bill in August that was signed by President Obama to make unlocking a phone or tablet legal. But that the provision isn't permanent. He called on Congress and the U.S. House Judiciary Committee to consider legislation that says it is not illegal to circumvent a lock as long as there's no intent to infringe on a copyright, similar to the Unlocking Technology Act that failed in Congress in 2013.

In addition to describing himself as a Web developer, Khanifar said he is a founder of two wireless-related companies, RepeaterStore and OpenSignal, and is a technology fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group devoted to defense of digital civil liberties.

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