As of late January, it was no longer legal to unlock cell phones. That followed a period from 2006 until 2012 when the Library of Congress said it was legal via a DMCA exemption. There may be some hope for end users, though, as on Wednesday night, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said the FCC will examine those restrictions.
Speaking at the CrunchGov event in San Francisco, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said that the “ban [on unlocking cell phones] raises competition concerns; it raises innovation concerns.” While admitting he is unsure what authority he has in the matter, Genachowski said “It’s something that we will look at at the FCC to see if we can and should enable consumers to use unlocked phones.”
Based on the tone of his conversation, TechCrunch believes that if if he finds that the FCC has any authority, it’s likely Genchowski will exert his influence and FCC chairmanship to reverse the decision.
Every three years, the Library of Congress examines possible DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) exemptions. From 2006 and 2009, it agreed that the unlocking of cell phones -- which allows a user to user their device on any wireless carrier -- was legal.
However, in the last round of examinations, the Library of Congress reversed its decision, again decreeing unlocking was again illegal.
If a cell; phone is unlocked, an AT&T user could, for example, put a T-Mobile SIM into the device and see it activate on the T-Mobile network. There are, of course, technical issues that may prevent optimal operation on a different network, such as frequencies used by a carrier.
Naturally, looking at it from a financial point of view, unlocking a cell phone isn't something most wireless carriers would appreciate (obviously). It gives a customer the chance to bolt to another carrier.
While unlocking is illegal, to be clear, jailbreaking -- which for iPhones is necessary in order to unlock a phone anyway -- is still legal. That is, of course, only for tablets.