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Enter the Net: New laws could ‘free’ your phone to change carriers

March 15, 2013

By David Hughes

Chances are your cell phone(s) and cellular-connected tablet computers are being held hostage. No, the criminal doesn’t have a gun or hide in shadows waiting to reach out and snatch it (them). Believe it or not, it’s a so-called “public servant” ( ha ha ha ha) paid with your tax dollars.
Just who is this vile person? Is it a member of Congress? No … funny how that was your first guess.
Believe it or not, it’s the Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, who has held the office since Sept. 14, 1987! He is the 13th person to hold this august title.
Just how in the heck does an 83-year-old academic have the power to tell the American people who their cell carrier must be is they want to use that very expensive phone they purchased?
. . . Congress, of course, because it did not want to hassle with the problem … and just exactly is the problem?
Well, according to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act the LOC mandates that as of October, 2012 if you buy a cell phone in the United States it must be “locked” to the carrier from which you purchased it. This was designed to protect the carriers which spend millions of dollars subsidizing handsets and tablets so their customers can afford them.
They called it “piracy.”
Further complicating the picture is the fact that world-wide cell phones operate on a variety of frequencies, but primarily two types of technologies – CDMA and GSM. This limits some phones from say a CDMA carrier such as Sprint being used on GSM systems such as AT&T and Verizon.
However, it is possible for an AT&T customer to use their phone on the Verizon system if the phone was unlocked. Also, many of the smaller cell phone companies don’t own their own towers and infrastructure, but buy bulk minutes and data from wholesalers such as Sprint, Verizon, etc.
Depending on what the original carrier was, that phone which cost hundreds of dollars on an expensive major provider call and data plan could be used on the cheaper carriers … if it could be unlocked legally.
Adding to the mess is the fact that some carriers allow users to pay the full retail price for cell equipment and not be required to sign up for the typical two-year contract. Plus, some companies provide lower-cost service if they do/did not subsidize the phone.
Apparently, the American people have gotten a gut full of being played as patsies by the major phone carriers to such an extent that a hue and cry has begun to bubble up on both Capitol Hill and the White House within the past few months to change the DMCA and “free” our phones from the shackles of the Librarian (grin).
President Obama is encouraging Congress to change the law so it will allow anyone who wants to unlock their phones from the original carrier to do so once a customer fulfills his or her original contract or pay full price initially for a phone/tablet.
Several senators and members of the House have filed bills addressing the question and the general consensus is that while big-money lobbyists will be fighting the proposed laws behind the scenes, this is not an issue that will be swept under the rug.
AT&T has gone on record as saying it would honor customer requests to unlock their phones once contracts are honored. Outright purchasers can make that request any time, according to the telcom giant.
If approved by Congress and signed by the President the law would allow you to finally “own” your phone, but there is the possibility of another shoe hitting the floor. Major cell companies realize that most of their customers can’t pay the many hundreds of dollars for modern so-called “smart-phone” which provides both data and voice services. It is to their advantage to discount the original phones and make up the difference in higher service costs. They also count on that at the end of the original contract the customer will continue. If they change carriers – even if the new carrier uses the same technology, the user will have to pay even more money for a phone that does the same thing.
The question may be will the carrier still continue to subsidize phones if statistics show the customers take their unlocked phones to lower-cost carriers?
Finally, it is important to understand the difference between “unlocking” a device and “jailbreaking” a device. The latter is, and would still be, illegal under the DCMA because jailbreaking changes how the phone was designed to operate. These electronic devices use proprietary programming which is protected under law.
There is little change this will change, despite the fact you now own your device.

David Hughes' column appears each Thursday in The Saline Courier.

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