FCC Chairman Calls for Wireless Carriers to Unlock Cellphones

PHOTO: Tom Wheeler, President Barack Obamas nominee as chairman of the FCCAndrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Tom Wheeler, President Barack Obama's nominee as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, arrives to a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation nomination hearing in Washington, June 18, 2013.

It can be a little disheartening to see the shiny new smartphone you want unavailable on your cell phone carrier.

Now, Tom Wheeler, the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), is calling for those carriers to be more open to customers unlocking their phones. A letter written by Wheeler and addressed to the president of CTIA-The Wireless Association called for more phone unlocking rights before the end of the year.

"The FCC staff has been working with CTIA on an amendment to your Consumer Code in which this industry would address consumers' rights to unlock their mobile wireless devices once their contracts are fulfilled," Wheeler wrote in the letter, dated Thursday. "Enough time has passed, and it is now time for the industry to act voluntarily or for the FCC to regulate."

The FCC had been working on finalizing unlocking rights for the past eight months, well before Wheeler was named chairman earlier this month. The previous chairman of the FCC, Julius Genachowski, helped overturn some legislation in March that restricted any customer from unlocking their cellphone.

Both the FCC and CTIA have made progress on making phone locking more accessible to cell phone customers. However, the two agencies seem to disagree on one point: informing customers when they're allowed to unlock. "Absent the consumer's right to be informed about unlocking eligibility, any voluntary program would be a hollow shell," wrote Wheeler.

Though the FCC is calling for more unlocking rights, it doesn't mean that they're advocating all phones be unlockable on day one. Wheeler also acknowledged that unlocking phones should be available "when the applicable service contract ... has been fulfilled."

So even if the FCC and CTIA come to a complete agreement, customers may still have to wait a while before taking their phone to a different carrier.