Cell Phone Providers, Please Unlock Our Phones

Cell phone providers have been called on to automatically unlock phones when monthly contracts end and to always have cell phones unlocked in pay-as-you-go deals by the UK-based consumer advocacy group Which?. The group has launched a petition to convince mobile providers to stop charging to unlock phones (or refusing to unlock phones at all) and better inform customers about their post-contract options.

42% of customers believe that they could have a better deal for their cell phone charges than in their current situation, according to a survey of UK mobile customers by research consultancy Populus. The figure shows that providers could be doing more to inform customers about the best mobile plans, so that even if they are not satisfied they would know it is still the best available. In the same survey, 82% of respondents said that companies should automatically unlock cell phones.

‘Locking’ a mobile phone means restricting it to a single network, discouraging users from moving to a new provider. Advocates of unlocking, or freeing cell phones, say that the practice creates electronic waste since the phone becomes useless after ending a contract. Additionally, it creates economic waste since it prevents customers from getting into a better contract.

Freeing, cell phones is still illegal in the US, although a bill to make it legal again currently sits in the Senate. In other countries, mobile providers have to rely on fees and self-imposed rules to hinder freeing phones, which vary greatly from one provider to the next. Virgin mobile charges £15.32 (USD25) for the service, Tesco £20 in the first 12 months. Nevertheless not all companies impose locks. GiffGaff and Three provided all devices unlocked.

The opposition to locking has been lifting.

In late 2012, American cell phone users were outraged to hear that unlocking a cell phone, an inconvenient but unavoidable task, was suddenly illegal. The resentment forced the issue to the top of the legislative agenda and in a little over a year (quick by current legislative standards) the house of representatives passed the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act. Critics argue that the bill is ‘watered down’ and it has yet to be passed by the Senate. Nevertheless, the law was prompted by a petition of over 100,000 signatures, a movement large enough that even mobile providers eventually agreed to make unlocking easier.

Now the UK may succeed in taking the consumer choice one step further. Executive director Richard Lloyd says, “We want to send a message to mobile phone companies that they should help customers get a better deal by alerting people that their contracts are about to end and by unlocking handsets for free.” The Which? campaign has over 10,000 signatures.

It is unclear whether cell phone providers will listen, but momentum might be on the side of consumers.

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