Obama to Sign Cell Phone ‘Unlocking' Bill, Easing Wireless Carrier Switches

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., called the legislation 'common sense'

President Barack Obama has said he will authorize legislation that passed the U.S. House and Senate to ease the "unlocking" of cell phones. Phones are termed as "locked" if they are linked with specific carriers, often because the companies have subsidized the purchase price of a mobile device as part of a multi-year contract with a customer.

Last year, more than 110,000 consumers signed a "We the People" petition asking for the ability to unlock their phones and change carriers once they complete the terms of any contracts they may have.

"I think it's common-sense legislation," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who has been working on this issue since last year as part of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs. "People ought to have that kind of choice."

From 2006 to 2012, an exemption allowed through the Library of Congress allowed consumers to switch their phone's settings and pick a new carrier. But the Library of Congress let that exemption lapse, citing copyright concerns.

President Obama said he looks forward to okaying it again. In a statement, Obama said:

I applaud Members of Congress for passing the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act. Last year, in response to a "We the People" petition from consumers across our country, my Administration called for allowing Americans to use their phones or mobile devices on any network they choose. We laid out steps the FCC, industry, and Congress should take to ensure copyright law does not undermine wireless competition, and worked with wireless carriers to reach a voluntary agreement that helps restore this basic consumer freedom. The bill Congress passed today is another step toward giving ordinary Americans more flexibility and choice, so that they can find a cell phone carrier that meets their needs and their budget. I commend Chairmen Leahy and Goodlatte, and Ranking Members Grassley and Conyers for their leadership on this important consumer issue and look forward to signing this bill into law.

Michel Guite of the Vermont Telephone Company told New England Cable News he predicts the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act will start moving the U.S. to behavior much of the rest of the world is already used to: where consumers pick options that fit their needs the best, then swap SIM cards at the back of their devices to make it happen.

"It's a step in the direction of changing the overall cell phone marketplace in the U.S.," Guite said. "To take more control over what they're going to buy; what they're going to pay for."

Guite also said the legislation may make it easier for small companies like his to serve a greater range of mobile devices.

Leahy said another benefit of the legislation is to create smoother repurposing of mobile devices. The non-profit Women Helping Battered Women, which said it served 5,300 survivors of domestic violence last year in Vermont's Chittenden County, hopes more people will see the value in donating used cell phones to the agency. WHBW said the group will be able to change the SIM cards on the phones and use them as 911 lifelines for families experiencing violence at home.

"This is huge," said Emily Fredette of Women Helping Battered Women. "If we can increase the donations we get, we can increase the amount we hand out to survivors. So I think that would be a direct result of this bill."

WHBW said for more information on donating used cell phones, people can visit its website. Vermonters may call the statewide number 1-800-ABUSE-95 for information on how to donate, or to seek support with domestic violence situations.

CTIA--The Wireless Association issued a statement last week after the bill's passage of the U.S. House of Representatives:

Today's action by the House moves us closer to alleviating any confusion stemming from the Copyright Office's 2012 decision and we await the President's signature on the bill to compete this process. At the same time, it is important to note that CTIA's members already committed to a set of voluntary principles that enable consumers interested in unlocking their devices to do so. Nonetheless, we greatly appreciate the care that Chairmen Leahy and Goodlatte took in crafting their legislation and avoiding the imposition of any new regulatory obligations on wireless providers.

Sen. Leahy praised the bipartisan nature of this legislation. "Common-sense legislation doesn't always pass in this Congress," Leahy told reporters. "I sometimes say that we would have a hard time getting a resolution through to say the sun rises in the East. But this one? We got a great coalition of conservatives and liberals and moderates together."

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