Release the cells!

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Locked cell phones frustrate users, but solutions are available

Marketplace Radio Program (NPR)

The following commentary by FTCR President Jamie Court was broadcast on Wednesday, November 30, 2005 on the Marketplace Radio program on NPR. Click here to listen to the audio of the commentary.

Lisa Napoli – Anchor: This is Marketplace. I’m Lisa Napoli. Lots of us can’t live without our cell phones, but most of us can live without our cell phone companies. Even though you’re allowed now to switch companies and keep your cell phone number, you usually can’t keep your phone. Consumer advocate Jamie Court explains why.

Jamie Court – Commentator: Sick of cell hell? Stuck with no cell phone service when everyone else has those perky black bars come up on that little screen, no problem? Ever feel like you just know there’s gotta be a better carrier?

Well, a few years ago, the FCC said you could keep your cell phone number when you switched networks. But they forgot one little thing — to force carriers to let you take your cell phone with you.

So now, your cell number may be portable, but that doesn’t mean your cell phone is.

You very likely paid for your cell phone when you signed up for service. But what your service provider didn’t tell you is they secretly put a programming lock on your phone that prevents it from being used on another company’s system.

That way they’ve locked you into their service unless you are willing to spring for another phone.

The practice of handset locking is like vandalism. The cell phone service provider bought the phone from a cell phone maker and literally tampered with it before selling it to you.

It’s like the Prius dealer modified the Prius gas tank so you could only buy gasoline from Shell gas stations.

That’s why my consumer group filed a lawsuit a last year against T-Mobile and Cingular over the issue.

These companies’ phones generally operate under the same, so-called GSM technology using SIM chips and were designed to be interchangeable.

Users should simply be able to use their old phone on the new service. But the software lock prevents it. Unfortunately, our legal case is still unresolved.

So what’s a cell phone user who wants to transfer service to do?

First, identify what type of technology your cell phone uses. Sprint and Verizon don’t use the GSM system. And the software lock on their phones is generally referred to as SPC.

If you want to unlock your cell phone, just go to Google. Type “unlock SPC” or “unlock SIM” and you’ll have more choices than you can imagine on how to free your phone.

Companies that specialize in unlocking phones will do it for you for about twenty bucks. They’ll either give you a code to unlock your phone or do it for you.

Then make sure your new cell phone carrier accepts unlocked phones. Some carriers may try to discourage you and tell you their network can’t provide all the bells and whistles if you’re bringing your old phone.

Ultimately, as long as the network technology is compatible, they shouldn’t be able to say no.

Finally, if you’re buying a cell phone from your carrier ask that it not be locked. Whatever you buy this Christmas, you should own all the keys.

If enough people start demanding that cell phones come unlocked, then by next Christmas you should be able to jingle your way to another provider without any hassle or throwing away 20 bucks.

Lisa Napoli – Anchor: Jamie Court is the author of “Corporateering” and he runs the site

By the way, we’re podcasting now. Check out the iTunes directory or our website,, for details. In Los Angeles I’m Lisa Napoli. Enjoy your day.

Consumer Watchdog
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