Cellphone unlocking could soon become legal again after Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday cleared the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act through a unanimous consent agreement. The bill is now headed to the House for a vote before potentially becoming law.
Back in February, the House of Representatives passed a similar bill. However, it has one key difference. The House bill prohibits bulk unlocking, making it difficult to build a business around it, while the Senate bill does not contain any such provision. Now, both the bills are required to be synced up so a final version can be sent to President Barack Obama for a signature.
If the bill does indeed become law, it would make it easy for you to take your phones to another carrier when you switch service providers. However, if you are still under contract with your carrier and you bought a device at a subsidized price, the bill doesn't make it mandatory for the carrier to unlock your phone.
As of now, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act prohibits legally unlocking a carrier-restricted device. Although the Library of Congress earlier granted an "exemption" to copyright law, making cellphone unlocking legal, the exemption expired in 2013.
Last year, five major US carriers agreed to the FCC's demand to make it easier for consumers to unlock their mobile phones for use on a competitor's network.
Despite the government's efforts, there are some technical roadblocks that need to be addressed before consumers can freely use their unlocked phones on a different operator. For example, Verizon and Sprint use a technology called CDMA for their basic voice service. This technology does not use a SIM card, making it difficult for consumers to switch operators, as the unlocked device needs to be "provisioned" on the new carrier.