Wheeler Coaxes Wireless Companies to Adopt Cell Phone Unlocking

Deal is an early win for new FCC chairman

Major wireless carriers have agreed to make it easier for consumers to unlock their mobile devices to change providers.

The set of voluntary principles unveiled by AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon Wireless, came after new Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the wireless industry, threatened regulation if a deal couldn't be reached.

While Wheeler struggles to justify his insistence on starting a controversial rulemaking that could pave the way for in-flight cell phone calls, the deal with the wireless industry is a major victory.

The new code sets ground rules for carriers to notify consumers when their devices are eligible for unlocking and unlock devices for customers in good standing. In most cases, carriers have two days to respond to an unlocking request.

Consumers have been frustrated that some wireless carriers lock their phones, preventing them from changing mobile providers even after the contract has expired. A petition on WhiteHouse.gov garnered 114,000 signatures, prompting the White House to respond, calling for a legislative or FCC fix so that "consumers could unlock their cell phones without risking criminal or other penalties." A number of lawmakers introduced legislation

Wheeler first announced the deal Thursday morning during a House oversight hearing on the agency, but details of the agreement weren't released until the afternoon during the commission's monthly meeting.

"Consumers win when they are armed with the right information and know their options, especially when it comes to navigating how to unlock a wireless phone after completing a contract," Wheeler said in a statement. "The FCC stands ready to help consumers understand these new policies in partnership with industry. I expect that this agreement will be incorporated into CTIA’s Code of Conduct for Wireless Providers, which serves as an important expression of the compact between industry and the public.”