Unlocking Your Phone Easier Said Than Done?
A few weeks ago, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued a ruling saying consumers can unlock their cellphones and take them with them when they switch wireless companies. The decision was widely hailed as a win for consumers, who typically have to shell out for another device when they switch carriers. There was no real reason for it. Carriers did it simply to hang onto customers.
So now that tyranny is over, right?
Well, not so fast. It turns out it may not be so easy to unlock a phone after all.
(I know. I'm being a real Debbie Downer.)
For starters, the ruling means little if you want to switch from, say, T-Mobile to Verizon Wireless because they operate on two different types of networks. T-Mobile is a GSM network and Verizon Wireless is a CDMA. So the ruling only really applies if you are on a GSM network and want to switch to another GSM network, such as Cingular.
(Other carriers that use GSM phones: Nextel and Boost. Carriers that use CDMA phone: Sprint, Verizon, Virgin Mobile, Amp'd, Helio and Alltel.)
As explained on The Phone Boy Blog, GSM networks and CDMA networks identify individual subscribers differently. In GSM, a SIM card is used. The SIM card contains your subscriber information. You can change phones by simply swapping the SIM card into a different phone. In CDMA, your subscriber information is tied to the phone's ESN, which is a kind of serial number. Since the ESN is burned into the phone and not portable among phones, you must contact the carrier (Sprint, Verizon, etc) to change to a different device.
Fred von Lohmann, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco last week told Consumer Union's Hear Us Now blog that having the right to break the locks is far different from having the ability to actually do it.
You can pay an outside service to unlock your phone, but von Lohmann said it remains unclear if that's even legal.
"There really isn't anything in the ruling that speaks to that sort of thing," he told CU. "It may be legal or it may not. It's very murky."
TracFone, which sells prepaid phones, is challenging the ruling. The company complains that the ruling threatens its livelihood because it means prepaid phones can be unlocked and then used on other services. I'll keep you posted on what happens with that.
In the meantime, if you haven't been dissuaded from trying to unlock your phone, here's a primer on how you might go about it.
Has anyone tried to unlock a phone? Give me the gory details.
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