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Wireless users may get more choice

Congress asked to ease rules on unlocking phones

WASHINGTON — For a decade, consumers have been able to keep their cellphone numbers even if they switched their wireless carriers. On Monday, the Obama administration and the Federal Communications Commission said consumers should also be able to switch carriers and keep their actual phones.

For consumers, being able to take their iPhone or any other type of handset with them when they switch carriers could make it easier to take advantage of lower rates once an initial contract is fulfilled. That might mean more price competition and more choices for cellphone customers.

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The administration and the FCC announced that they will urge Congress to overturn a ruling made last year by the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress that made it illegal for consumers to unlock their cellphones, opening the protective software that restricts most phones from working on another carrier’s network.

Average consumers probably are not even aware that there is a process that would allow them to keep their current phone when they switch from one national carrier to another after they have satisfied their initial service contract.

The freedom to keep a phone regardless of the carrier has become a popular cause in tech-savvy circles, and an online petition to the White House gained more than 100,000 signatures in a month, prompting a response.

Without a change, the potential consequences for unauthorized unlocking, under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, are stiff: a $500,000 fine and five years in prison.

Wireless phone companies say they do not understand what the fuss is about. The big carriers each have policies that allow for phone unlocking on request once a user has fulfilled the initial contract terms. And, the carriers say, there are plenty of places to buy an unlocked phone to be used on a pay-as-you-go basis.

Consumers have long been able to buy phones that are unlocked, but that usually requires paying full price, which is often several times the subsidized price at which carriers offer phones along with a two-year contract.

For example, an unlocked iPhone 5 can be purchased from the Apple store for $649; the same phone purchased from AT&T costs $199 if the buyer accepts a two-year contract for wireless service.

Because the Library of Congress, and therefore the copyright office, is part of the legislative branch, the White House cannot simply overturn the current ruling. But both the White House and the FCC urged Congress to take up the issue.

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