Washington • For a decade consumers generally have been able to keep their cellphone numbers even if they switched their wireless carriers. Earlier this week, the Obama administration and the Federal Communications Commission said consumers should also be able to switch carriers and keep their actual phones.
The administration and the FCC announced that they will urge Congress to overturn a ruling made last year by the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress that made it illegal in some instances for consumers to unlock their cellphones, opening the protective software that restricts most phones from working on another carrier’s network.
The freedom to keep a phone regardless of the carrier has become a popular cause in tech-savvy circles, and an online petition to the White House gained more than 100,000 signatures in a month.
"If you have paid for a mobile device, and aren’t bound by a service agreement or other obligation, you should be able to use it on another network," R. David Edelman, a senior White House adviser for Internet, innovation and policy, wrote in a blog post on the White House website.
"It’s common sense," he said, and it raises concerns about consumer choice, competition and innovation.
Without a change, the potential consequences for unauthorized unlocking, under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, are stiff — a $500,000 fine and five years in prison.
Wireless phone companies say they do not understand what the fuss is about. The big carriers each have policies that allow for phone unlocking on request once a user has fulfilled the initial contract terms. And, the carriers say, there are plenty of places to buy an unlocked phone to be used on a pay-as-you-go basis.
Michael Altschul, a senior vice president of CTIA — The Wireless Association, a trade group representing cellphone companies, said the national wireless carriers insist on a phone remaining locked only for the duration of the service contract so they can recover some of the cost of their subsidy that reduces the purchase price of the phone.
Consumers have long been able to buy phones that are unlocked, but that usually requires paying full price, which is often several times the subsidized price at which carriers offer phones along with a two-year contract.
The ban on unlocking a cellphone became an issue with the passage in 1988 of the copyright act, which among other provisions makes it illegal to circumvent digital protection technology.
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