What Unlocked Cell Phones Means for the Mobile Market

In case you haven’t heard, there’s been a pretty big change in how cell phone carriers control our smartphones recently. On August 1, 2014, President Obama signed a bill that would allow consumers to take their phones with them to whatever carrier they wanted to use. What that means is: you’re no longer stuck with that carrier you signed up with, and can take your uber-cool cell phone elsewhere if you’re not happy with the deal or service you’re getting. What unlocked cell phones means for the mobile market


How it Happened

We’ve all be complaining for years that we felt trapped with our endless contracts and horrible customer service, but none of us actually expected anyone to take action on it. Enter Sina Khanifar: an Internet activist who decided to do something about it. He started a petition asking the government to make cell phone unlocking legal. With 114,000 signatures, he managed to get Capitol Hill’s attention. With unprecedented speed, the bill got passed. Now carriers can’t hold us hostage.


The Fine Print

So now, you can request your carrier to unlock your phone (no, it’s not automatic). But only if your contract is up (you know your carrier wants to get the full $800 value for that iPhone you only paid $99 for).

And even then, the process to get your phone unlocked may or may not be simple, depending on the carrier’s willingness to let you leave. Here’s the process for each.

  • AT&T: Fill out this form.

  • Verizon: Call support at 1-800-711-8300 and ask for a SIM unlock.

  • T-Mobile: While T-Mobile does offer an unlocking app, it only works with the Samsung Galaxy Avant for now. Unlock it online or call 611 from your phone.

  • Sprint: Sprint’s behind the curve and doesn’t yet have an easy way to unlock phones, but it does have a lengthy policy written about it. Try customer service.


Why It’s Not as Great as It Sounds

While this bill makes it seem like mobile phone users have all this freedom, it’s a bit deceiving. First, there’s that fact that you have to have completed your contract, which are typically 2 years long. So you still have that 2-year waiting period. Not ideal.

Second, not every type of phone works on every network. Some use CDMA (like Sprint and Verizon) while others use GSM (T-Mobile, AT&T, and other global carriers). So unlocking is all for nought if your new carrier doesn’t support your favorite phone. The 5S is a great example of a phone that won’t work across carriers, even though from the outside, it looks to be the same phone that they all offer. There are actually CDMA and GSM versions of the iPhone 5S, so one won’t work if the carrier doesn’t support that system.


What Does This Mean for the Market?

I expect this all to get smoother in the coming months, as the average consumer begins to complain about the complexity of the unlocking process. From the carriers’ point of view, the ones delivering subpar customer service will likely see some flight from dissatisfied customers, so maybe they’ll step up their game, since they’ll now have to actually compete to keep customers in place.

I don’t anticipate too much movement from Apple to Android devices and vice versa. I think this will be more of a power play for cell phone carriers, who will have to find innovative offers to keep customers around long-term.

Overall, it’s great to see Capitol Hill taking action (and quickly) on a subject that so many of us are affected by. It’s clear the digital landscape is changing the world on every level.


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