Editorial by Andrew Kameka on Wednesday March 20, 2013.
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The U.S. has yet to figure out how to unlock a smartphone in a way that pleases both consumers and carriers. It probably cannot be done because the two sides have interests that do not align with each other. Carriers want to keep consumers locked down and consumers want freedom, or at least the illusion of it. Differing network technologies prevent interoperability between carriers, but service providers still want to keep customers from taking their phone to another company.
After the White House and FCC expressed support for changing laws regarding cell phone unlocking, AT&T issued a statement saying that it unlocks phones so long as the customer has paid his or her obligations to the carrier. I decided to put that statement to the test and try to unlock my AT&T Samsung Galaxy Note II and Nokia Lumia 920 to see if the process is as easy as AT&T claims. Here's what I discovered in my attempt to unlock both phones.
I went to AT&T's website that supposedly offers easy unlocking. The process is confusing because the only page that offers an online option is the iPhone unlock page, and the following pages all specifically mention the iPhone, leading me to believe the website won't be much help to me. That means I have to venture to an AT&T store for help.
I went to an AT&T store nearby and was disappointed to learn that it was a third-party authorized retailer that is unable to unlock the phone. The employee on site forwarded me to a nearby corporate store that can unlock the phones. Allegedly.
An excited salesperson at the nearest AT&T corporate location told me that she has never heard of anyone unlocking a phone in store and claimed that it is always done through customer service. I pointed out that AT&T's official statement and website say that it can be done at a corporate store, but she apologized for being unable to help and insisted that I call customer service.
I called AT&T customer service and explained the problem to them. The helpful customer service rep took the Galaxy Note II IMEI number, added my information, and then gave me an unlock code 10 minutes later. Finally! Achievement: unlocked. When I tried to give the sales person the IMEI for the Nokia Lumia 920, I was informed that I can only unlock one phone every 14 days because I am not an AT&T customer. An AT&T customer can unlock multiple phones at once, but they are limited to 5 devices per year. This was disappointing, but I accepted the limitation and moved on.
Unlocking my AT&T phones was a very minor challenge, but it was not as easy as AT&T suggest. The real problem seemed to be incompetence rather than shadiness on the part of AT&T. I doubt that the carrier purposely puts up roadblocks to try and make the unlocking process troublesome, but it's policies, lack of clarity, and failure to properly train employees gets in the way of the utopia that AT&T would have consumers believe exists. I've heard horror stories about people running into walls with AT&T in recent years, including refusals to unlock exclusive devices or newly-released phones, but I found the unlocking process to only be slightly annoying.
My experience also made me wonder about the other scenarios that might be more challenging. What will AT&T do if I try to unlock a phone that I purchased from someone else on eBay or Craigslist?
AT&T's website states that the person requesting an unlock code must be an AT&T customer or former customer. I reached out to AT&T for confirmation of this policy and was told that unlock requests must originate from the seller. The buyer could pop in an existing AT&T SIM and continue using the phone without issue, but for international travel or to use the phone with a MVNO like Straight Talk or Simple Mobile, the seller would have to contact AT&T to unlock the device.
What happens when a phone is a gift?
That's trickier, but you might be able to get it done depending on the luck of your customer service draw. I have no documentation whatsoever for my Samsung Galaxy Note II or my Nokia Lumia 920, both of which I obtained while attending conferences. The customer service rep I spoke to unlocked the Galaxy Note II without requiring documentation because it was not tied to an outstanding account, but a more strict rep might have asked for more proof that I couldn't provide.
AT&T's policies state that it will unlock phones tied to its network if they are not under contract or reported lost or stolen; however, my experience over the past few days has shown me that a policy is only as effective as the people implementing it. Regardless of what rules AT&T sets-up, things can go off-track without proper training and communication to its employees.
I'm not too excited about the prospect of government intervention if this is what we have to look forward to in the future. Device unlocking might be made law, but there will probably still be wiggle room for carriers to tack on stipulations that limit choices. New laws might require that unlocking be possible, but they won't have much teeth unless there's a standard, easier process that all carriers would have to follow. The only questions that should matter is if the person providing the unlock code can prove that the device is not under contract and lost or stolen. Any changes introduced by Congress or the FCC that fall short of that would do little to change the way that carriers treat unlocking phones.
Andrew is based in Miami, Florida.