Some iPhone owners crave freedom to unlock from AT&T

Their Bell-centric makeup means AT&T and Verizon are potent competitors, Kelsey says. Each controls miles of local phone networks that connect to buildings and cell towers. Known as "special-access" lines, they haul mobile data traffic from cell towers to local phone networks.

Without access to those lines, called the "middle mile," Sprint and other rivals couldn't exist.

Special-access lines are unregulated, so AT&T and Verizon can "bleed their competitors for access to them," Kelsey says. Those costs ultimately get passed along to consumers.

Tom Sugrue, vice president of government affairs for T-Mobile, says the issue is manageable in big cities, where alternative providers such as Level 3 help keep prices in check. But in suburbs and smaller markets, where AT&T and Verizon are often the only providers, T-Mobile and other carriers are basically stuck.

"When the supplier is also your major competitor, the problem (of special access) can be acute," he says.

AT&T's Cicconi says rivals can build their own facilities if they don't want to pay AT&T and other carriers. He also says it's unfair to accuse big carriers of price gouging.

Scott and Kelsey say the real problem isn't special access, or even consolidation. It's the lack of regulatory oversight in wireless, which is quickly becoming a fixture in American life.

"Big isn't necessarily bad," Scott says. "But big and completely unregulated is bad."

Locked down and waiting

For locked-down iPhone users, the wait continues.

Peter Tögel, a Web development manager for Clemson University, says he recently asked AT&T to unlock his 2-year-old iPhone. Tögel says he and his wife were going to Australia, and he hoped to use a "SIM" card there so he could get a better rate on data roaming. SIM cards are removable data cards containing subscriber information. They can be swapped out so you can use your phone on any compatible network. AT&T and T-Mobile, for instance, use similar technology standards for their networks.

Since he'd fulfilled his two-year contract obligation, Tögel says he didn't think his request would be a problem.

It was. AT&T said no. Apple, citing AT&T's exclusive arrangement, also said no, he says.

Tögel, a self-described geek, says he's considering jailbreaking his device, "but that's a last resort." He's also considering buying an iPhone in Australia, where it's sold on an unlocked basis.

Tögel says he's not mad at AT&T — he likes the carrier's service. He just wishes AT&T would show a little compassion, particularly when it comes to iPhone customers who have fulfilled their contract obligations.

"I was bound for two years, but after that, please unlock it," he says, offering some advice to AT&T. "I paid my dues. That's all I'm asking."

Contributing: Donna Leinwand

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