SIM locking is when a carrier (provider of cellphone service) locks your phone so that it only works with their service. This is bullshit.

It used to be done all the time, on the basis that your phone was subsidized by the carrier, and you were paying it off. But even after it had been paid off, carriers still charged the subsidy, and still refused to unlock the phone to be used on other carriers.

That began to change in 2012, when an iPhone owner wrote to Apple asking for help getting their phone unlocked, and not wanting to jailbreak it to do so.

A brief history

Before smartphones, carriers would unlock handsets for international travel, especially if you owned them outright. The FCC has a handy page on device unlocks.

Then, it became common with the introduction of the iPhone to lock the phone and never unlock it. Apple used to tell customers, “the carrier has to make a request,” and carriers would tell customers, “the iPhone is unique to our network and can’t be used on anyone else’s, so it can’t be unlocked.”

It took Tim Cook stepping in to break that stranglehold. AT&T followed by creating a group to handle unlocks, and later, a website to input your phone’s IMEI to see if it was a candidate for unlocking. They had simple requirements, such as, the phone being paid off, or an account in good standing.

T-Mobile used to have a policy that was similar: if you paid outright for a phone, it would be unlocked. If the device was paid up, even if you didn’t have a TMO account, they would unlock if you wrote them an email.

Sprint used to be locked by default and that was it. No unlocks, ever.

Verizon was the reverse: Verizon was unlocked by default.

Why was Verizon unlocked by default?

Verizon Wireless was the only major carrier to not lock its smartphones, a policy they agreed to as a condition of their acquisition of 700 MHz spectrum licenses in 2008, which included a prohibition on phone locking.

(e)Handset locking prohibited.?No licensee may disable features on handsets it provides to customers, to the extent such features are compliant with the licensee?s standards pursuant to paragraph (b)of this section, nor configure handsets it provides to prohibit use of such handsets on other providers? networks.

? 27.16 Network access requirements for Block C in the 746-757 and 776-787 MHz bands.

Verizon agreed to this condition in order to have access to the spectrum. That’s it. The policy doesn’t have an out, doesn’t have a process for amendment, and the FCC would have to agree to a new policy for this to change. The FCC didn’t.

So what happened?

The new carrier policies – locks for everyone!

Sprint decided that their policy is to not unlock a handset ever. But they will do a fake unlock that means a US SIM won’t work, but a non-US one will. If that sounds like bullshit, it is.

T-Mobile changed policies to require 40 days of active use of the phone, even if you paid in full. If that sounds like bullshit, it is.

AT&T requires an account in good standing for 60 days on a device that is not fully paid off. The device cannot have been stolen. That’s about it. It’s not bad, although as long as they’re still getting paid for the device, they should unlock it.

What did Verizon do?

Verizon got away with the most bullshit of all. Verizon unilaterally decided they would start locking phones, in violation of the policy they agreed to.

?We?re taking steps to combat this theft and reduce fraud. These steps will make our phones exponentially less desirable to criminals,? Tami Erwin, executive vice president of wireless operations for Verizon, said in a statement to CNET at the time.

This is what they did, instead of, you know, actually addressing the theft. They locked phones and made them unusable with other carriers until activated on Verizon.

Devices that you purchase from Verizon are locked for 60 days after purchase. Devices that you purchase from our retail partners are locked for 60 days after activation. After 60 days, we will automatically remove the lock. Following the 60 day lock period, we do not lock our phones at any time

This is, of course, bullshit. 60 days isn’t the longest period ever, and they do remove the lock automatically… but it should never have been there in the first place. And it shouldn’t be there on phones that are purchased outright.

I filed a complaint with the FCC about Verizon violating FCC policy. A Verizon lawyer responded saying, “this seems like a net neutrality complaint,” (it wasn’t) and the FCC dismissed it. In other words, Verizon got away with this bullshit.

Verizon did actually propose that the FCC modify or waive the agreement to not lock phones. In 2019. After they’d begun to lock phones.

If you were worried about phones being stolen in transit, as Verizon’s spokesperson said, you’d lock them while in transit and automatically remove the lock when sold or delivered to their destination. If you wanted to redefine who a customer is, and when the customer relationship begins, as Verizon attempted to, you do this bullshit.

A better future than the one we got

The future where you purchase a phone, and pay it off in installments, but aren’t locked in to any one carrier could be a reality. For years, Apple has shipped LTE iPads with an Apple SIM and the ability to switch carriers at will. When you roam or travel, just tap to select a new carrier.

Now that phones are getting eSIM instead of SIM cards in slots, this is even more real: There’s no card to change, just tap or use an app to switch which carrier your phone is on. There’s no actual customer benefit from lock-in. It doesn’t have to be this way.

If you owe installments on a phone, those should be paid separately of the carrier bill, and it doesn’t need to be locked to the carrier to enforce that – if you stopped paying, they could report it as stolen, and have it blacklisted. Instead, what we have are carriers trying to turn back the clock to out of fear. And that’s just bullshit.

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