“It was passed at a time when things looked really, really different in the consumer electronics market,” says Kerry Maeve Sheehan, a repair policy lead at iFixit. “It was passed really to address issues like DVD piracy, and not to address issues like software-enabled refrigerators or internet-connected home systems. Unfortunately, the place we find ourselves in is a world where software is in everything, and software is covered by copyright law.”
In 2015, the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act made it legal for customers to unlock phones without penalty. Carriers aren’t required to make phones unlocked by default, but they do have to give customers a way to unlock them. Technically, the process is free in the US—as long as you have lots of time and patience.
Some carriers make it relatively simple to unlock devices. Verizon says that the majority of its devices automatically unlock by default after 60 days. AT&T, on the other hand, has a checklist of requirements that customers have to meet before a phone can be unlocked. Unlocking a T-Mobile device requires its own app.
Calls and emails to the major US carriers asking for comment went unanswered.
These restrictions don’t present much of a struggle for most people. But even a small hurdle or waiting period puts the onus of unlocking on the customer rather than on the company. That added friction makes it more of a pain to sell or gift a phone down the line.
“It’s just a massive pain for consumers,” Wiens says, adding, “There’s a really substantial cost, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, to American consumers by having this default in place.”
On resell markets like Swappa, locked phones tend to sell for considerably less than unlocked phones. Customers have bought phones from second-hand stores like Goodwill, only to discover that they’re locked and basically unusable.
Economics aside, there’s an environmental impact as well. The greenest solution for dealing with an old phone is for the device to be resold and passed along to a new owner. E-waste is a massive, growing problem and device recycling is still a resource-intensive process. Recyclers have to decide whether it’s more cost effective to just scrap and recycle a device than to resell it. If there’s less demand for a locked phone (because fewer people can use it) then it’s worth less. Every additional complication like this that lowers a phone’s resale value makes it less likely that it will be reused.
“If we can force more phones to be unlocked, that will potentially expand the life of these phones by years,” Wiens says. “Because it will push it into the range of economic viability for recyclers to fix them and then resell them in developing markets.”
The Road Ahead
Considering all that, how could carriers be forced to provide phones that are unlocked by default? There are a couple of promising avenues, though neither are a given.
“It’s a component of this broader question about net neutrality,” says Mitch Stoltz, a senior staff attorney with the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation. “A broad definition of net neutrality includes carriers giving their customers the freedom to use the equipment that they want to use as well as access the data and websites that they want to access. I absolutely expect that to be on the agenda in the coming year.”
The “agenda” here meaning something to be decided by a regulating body. In the UK, the regulator Ofcom made that call. The US Ofcom equivalent is the Federal Communications Commission. Under its current leadership of Trump appointee Ajit Pai, the FCC has been staunchly pro-business, passing legislation like the repeal of net neutrality at the behest of companies like AT&T.