Obama's Brilliant Idea Could Lower Your Cell Phone Bill

Carrier lock-in, which prevents cell phone owners from switching between carriers due to lengthy contracts, is the bane of many mobile phone users' lives. As a result, when users want to change cell phone carriers, they must choose between buying a brand new phone or attempting to unlock their phone illegally. Fortunately, the Obama administration doesn't think anyone should have to go to jail for unlocking a cellphone.

Months after calling for legislation to unlock cellphones, the White House filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Tuesday asking all wireless carriers to unlock their devices so users can easily switch between carriers. The petition, filed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, states that the move would encourage competition by allowing customers to opt for a different carrier for a better plan or rates, better services, and hopefully lower prices.

"Enabling consumers to switch between operators without losing their investment in wireless devices would enhance competition which, in turn, should produce more service innovation, lower prices, and more consumer-friendly terms and conditions," the NTIA wrote in the petition. Most mobile devices contain software that prevents a user from switching the device to run on a rival carrier's system.

In January, the Library of Congress made unlocking illegal when an exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act expired, a decision that quickly sparked furious complaints from online activists. Gayle Osterberg, a spokeswoman for the Library of Congress, said the library determined it was acceptable for companies to decide when to unlock a cell phone. "The evidence showed that the market has changed," Osterberg said. "There are a wide variety of new phones that are already available unlocked, and cellphone carriers have relaxed their unlocking policies." The activists' petition on the White House's protest forum, however, collected over 114,000 signatures in just a few weeks to overturn the decision. The White House, in response, said it would support legislation to overturn the decision and called on the FCC to intervene. 

"It's common sense, crucial for protecting consumer choice, and important for ensuring we continue to have the vibrant, competitive wireless market that delivers innovative products and solid service to meet consumers' needs," David Edelman, Obama's senior internet adviser, said in a statement. 

Tom Wheeler, Obama's nominee for chair of the FCC, came out in favor of legalizing the move in June. "I am a strong supporter of intellectual property rights," said Wheeler. "At the same point in time, I believe that when I as a consumer or you as a consumer, or anyone have fulfilled our commitment and we've paid off our contract, that we ought to have the right to use that device and move it across carriers as we see fit." Carriers, on the other hand, have argued that cell phone locks are crucial "to prevent the bulk unlocking of handsets and arbitrage of the handset subsidy system, which can harm consumers and facilitate the sale of stolen smart phones."