Sprint and T-Mobile defend unlocking policies

Criticism prompts researcher who dinged carriers to consider amending his carrier scorecard

Various smartphones
Credit: Thinkstock

Sprint and T-Mobile separately defended their smartphone and tablet unlocking policies on Wednesday following criticism from independent researcher Sina Khanifar.

Sprint in a short statement said that as of Feb. 11, it had "implemented all six of the principles contained in the CTIA [Consumer Code] unlocking agreement, and we appreciate the FCC's recognition that the country's major providers have met their commitment."

The FCC last week applauded carriers for meeting voluntary unlocking principals by the Feb. 11 deadline.

Sprint said, however, that it would make no comment on Khanifar's findings that indicated both it and T-Mobile had each met only half of the six principles laid out in the Code.

T-Mobile offered more detail than Sprint to provide a rebuttal to Khanifar's scorecard, which evaluated the four major U.S. carriers' unlocking policies.

In his scorecard, Khanifar compared the carriers' actual online unlocking policies with the terms of the policies as outlined in the Code. For T-Mobile, specifically, he contended the carrier hadn't met three: those requiring lenient unlocking policies for postpaid and prepaid phones and a policy on how T-Mobile would notify consumers when they are eligible to unlock a device.

In its response, emailed to Computerworld, T-Mobile said it just implemented a notification procedure in January that gives customers a line item notice on their wireless bill when they have a device that's eligible to be unlocked. That information has not yet been added in writing to T-Mobile's unlocking policy.

T-Mobile, in its statement, didn't specifically rebut the points Khanifar made about postpaid and prepaid phone unlocking policies. However, in general, the carrier did say it "worked hard to get an industry agreement on unlocking and our unlocking policy met with the CTIA requirements in advance of the deadline."

T-Mobile also said "unlocking is something customers should be able to do and our vision is to radically simplify this process." The carrier noted it was the first major U.S. wireless provider to bring an on-device unlock app to market last August. The Mobile Device Unlock app works with two Android devices: the Samsung Galaxy Avant and the Sony Xperia Z3. The unlock app is expected to be available on more phones in the future, T-Mobile said.

T-Mobile also indicated it supports both unlocking of phones and the ability of consumers to use unlocked phones on its network. "We have been championing the bring-your-own-device concept in wireless for several years now," T-Mobile said in its statement, and included a link to information describing how to switch carriers with a GSM phone with a SIM card.

Khanifar is a Web developer who has started two wireless-related companies and websites and is a technology fellow for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to defending digital civil liberties. He undertook his analysis and compiled the scorecard after the FCC congratulated the carriers for meeting the CTIA Consumer Code. Unlocking policies interest him partly because he once wrote code to unlock a Motorola Razr phone. (He stopped after Motorola asked him to cease and desist.) Khanifar no longer writes unlocking programs and doesn't work on behalf of any of the wireless carriers mentioned in his scorecard.

T-Mobile's comments prompted Khanifar to reconsider his score for the carrier. "It does sound like T-Mobile might get an extra check mark" on the six policies in its favor, he said via email. He didn't elaborate.

In his report, Khanifar dinged T-Mobile for saying it will not unlock more than two devices per line in one year and for requiring devices on monthly plans to have been active for at least 40 days -- even if the contract expires after a month under T-Mobile's policies and all dues have been paid. "That requirement violates CTIA's Consumer Code, which states that consumers should be able to unlock any device once it is out of contract," Khanifar said.

Meanwhile, he did not hit AT&T for its policy of only unlocking postpaid phones that have been active for at least 60 days -- 20 days longer than what T-mobile requires. Kanifar said comparing AT&T with T-Mobile is "tricky" because AT&T doesn't have the short monthly contracts T-Mobile has.

Still, Khanifar said he might have to ding AT&T for the 60-day requirement. "It's a valid point -- why do you need to have been active for at least 60 days under AT&T [to get unlocked]? If you start an account, cancel it 30 days later and pay all the early terminal fees, why shouldn't you be able to unlock your phone? There's also some other weird loopholes in AT&T's language. If you do [what AT&T indicates], then you basically seem to never be able to unlock a phone again, even if you buy one second-hand."

The loopholes and lack of clarity in the unlocking policies of all the carriers are partly why Khanifar favors a federal law that permanently makes it legal for an individual to unlock his or her phone independent of the carriers and requires carriers to accept unlocked phones brought to them by consumers.

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