This week, the House of Representatives woke up from its summer recess to pass a new bill which would turn over the DMCA law that prevents the average consumer from unlocking their cell phone without facing a hefty set of fines, and possibly permanent backlash from their providers over the nature of what “ownership” really means in the 21st century.
The aptly named Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., was passed by a vote of 295 to 114 Friday, while the Senate version, championed by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, was approved 10 days ago.
The reason unlocking has become such a hotly debated topic at the political level is due to the fact that many smartphones currently on the market come with a significant upfront cost which would normally turn the coupon-conscious consumer off from buying them flat out, carriers quickly learned they could lessen the blow of the actual cost by offering the increasingly complex (read: expensive) devices out on a lease-by-lease basis. Pay a portion of the pricetag on signing a two-year contract, and the company will make up the difference in the exorbitant cost of data and downloads that usually follow closely behind.
This model has proved immensely profitable for them, allowing many of the top contenders such as Verizon and AT&T to pocket millions as users accidentally trip over their monthly data limits into the realm of penny-per-GB overcharges that can be difficult to avoid when everything from streaming Pandora to receiving emails sucks up some kind of usage throughout the day.
Unlocking one’s phone is nothing new to the hacker set of course, many of whom have been using tools available online to jailbreak their iPhones, root their Androids, and do whatever one needs to do to get a Windows Phone to reveal all its internal secrets.
T-Mobile, a company which has prided itself as being as “unlike the other guys” as possible over the past several years, offers up a similar service for a nominal fee of $35, allowing owners of iPhones and Android devices to easily unlock their devices under their new “uncarrier” plan.
The move has spelled gangbusters for the once-fledgling cellphone provider, who has spent the past 24-months poaching millions of customers who are looking for a carrier that respects their desire for reliable service at a reasonable price, and doesn’t expect you to sign your life away at the dotted line for the privilege.
Congress first saw the bill hit their floor after an online petition to allow phone unlocking screamed past the 100,000 signature benchmark on WhiteHouse.gov, prompting a response from the president himself when he personally asked the FCC to come up with a plan that would give the American people what they were asking for.
Of course, he had to accomplish this without compromising the tenuous relationship that exists between the agency and the hundreds (if not thousands) of industry lobbyists which set up shop in their offices each week with gifts of chocolate, candy, and a healthy dose of campaign contributions that keep the wheels greased and the common consumer crushed under the weight of their seemingly-bottomless influence.