What the Cellphone Unlocking Law Means for You

A bill that will make it legal to unlock your cellphone is headed for U.S. President Barack Obama’s desk. This is great news, but what does it mean for you? Will it actually impact how you can use your devices?

The ability to “unlock” your cellphone or tablet — that is, provision the phone to run on a different carrier network — gained visibility in early 2013, after a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) exemption that made the practice legal in the U.S. expired.

That means that under U.S. law, it is now illegal to unlock a cellphone without a carrier’s permission. Consumers, advocacy groups and even the White House came out in favor of legalizing phone unlocking. The wireless industry, which was initially against reinstating the copyright exemption, even had a change of heart, of sorts.

Last week, a piece of bipartisan legislation, dubbed the “Unlocking Consumer and Wireless Competition Act,” was unanimously approved by both the House and the Senate. This means that consumers will once again be able to legally unlock their cellphones without running afoul of copyright laws.

The law will only restore the exemption until the Librarian of Congress makes its next ruling(which is scheduled to happen sometime in 2015), but as activist Sina Khanifar notes, this is the first time Congress has ever acted to reverse an exemption.

Alright, so you’ll soon be able to unlock your phone again. What does this mean for you, the regular phone user?

Will this make my phone work on all carriers?

A common misconception is that unlocking a cellphone will make it compatible with all other cellular networks. In other words, if I unlock my Verizon handset, I can use it on AT&T or Sprint.

The reality is a lot more complicated. In the United States, wireless carries have historically run on two types of technology: GSM or CDMA. AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM for the underpinnings of its network, while Verizon and Sprint use CDMA. The two technologies are incompatible with one another, which means that many (though not all) CDMA phones will not work on a GSM network.

With CDMA devices, even being unlocked doesn’t guarantee a Sprint phone will work on Verizon’s network. The networks still have to provision different phones and in most cases, a Sprint phone won’t be provisioned to run on Verizon’s voice network and vice versa.

But let’s assume you have a “world phone” — that is, a phone that has both CDMA and GSM support. Does that mean your Verizon device can now be used on AT&T? The answer sadly, is, “it depends.”

Some phones, such as Verizon’s iPhone, are also unlocked to work on GSM networks. That means that you can use your Verizon iPhone 5S on AT&T and T-Mobile, and you’ll even get LTE speeds. If you have a Verizon iPhone 5, however, the unlocked phone will only get HSPA+ speeds on T-Mobile and AT&T.

An AT&T or T-Mobile phone, unlocked or not, will not work on Sprint. Some AT&T and T-Mobile unlocked phones will work on Verizon’s LTE network, but that’s only for data, not for voice.

We should also point out that because LTE has so many different bands, you can’t guarantee that an LTE device made for one network will work on LTE on another network. Phone makers are starting to build in support for more bands into their devices, but it’s far from a perfect match.

If you’re an iPhone user, you can find out what networks your phone will work on by looking atthis chart from MacRumors.

Can my unlocked phone work overseas?

As long as it is a “world phone,” the answer is yes. Unlike the United States, the rest of the world has almost entirely standardized on GSM. That means that as long as your Verizon or Sprint phone is designated a “world phone,” it can be unlocked and used in Europe and many other countries.

Keep in mind, however, that just because you can pop in a SIM card and get voice or SMS service doesn’t mean you can get LTE data service on your phone overseas. LTE support is based on what band is supported by your phone and the carrier in a specific country. More often than not, your phone will get HSPA+ at best if you are trying to use it someplace else.

It’s also important to know that China uses a different standard than the rest of the world. If you’re going to China, plan on just using your phone on Wi-Fi and maybe on 2G. Plan to buy a local replacement if it’s going to be a long stay.

Can I unlock my tablet too?

The cellphone unlock bill only covers phones. The bill did say, however, that the Librarian of Congress should consider whether other wireless devices, like tablets, are also eligible for unlocking.

With tablets, the unlocking scenario is actually less complex, if only because we’re only talking about data networks, Increasingly, modern tablets in the United States are sold to work on T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon networks for LTE (and Verizon models can fall-back to CDMA for 3G data).

What does this mean for bulk unlockers?

Early supporters of the cellphone unlock movement expressed their displeasure with an early version of the bill, which denied legal protections to “bulk unlockers” — that is, companies and services designed for unlocking your phone. This group also includes phone recyclers and resellers.

As a result, the language concerning “bulk unlockers” was removed for the bill. That means that bulk unlocking services or recyclers or resellers, should feel free to unlock phones just like anyone else.

Will we have to do this whole exemption dance again?

Yes, but hopefully it won’t take as long next time. The Library of Congress meets again in 2015 to decide on the next set of DMCA exemptions. With Congress and the Senate approving the bill — and with the overwhelming public support — we can only hope it will be passed again.

There is talk to bring a bill forward that would permanently exempt cellphone unlocking from the DMCA, in order to avoid this every two-years song and dance.

Author: Christina Warren
Source: Mashable