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Small carriers supporting cell phone unlocking to gain access to Apple's iPhone

The recent push to legalize mobile device unlocking is getting support from a number of smaller wireless carriers, who see the movement as a way of getting Apple's iPhone on to their networks.


Apple sells an unlocked version of the iPhone directly to consumers.

Bloomberg on Wednesday reported that several regional and rural wireless providers have thrown their support behind legislation in Congress that would allow wireless customers to unlock their devices without carrier permission. The Competitive Carriers Association (CCA)—which represents carriers includingU.S. Cellular, T-Mobile, Cricket, and NTelos — wants Congress to undo a recent decision by the Library of Congress that went into effect in January, forbidding mobile owners from unlocking their devices without permission.

Following the Obama administration's endorsement of legalizing unlocking, the momentum appears to be with the unlock movement.

A bill introduced on Monday in the Senate would allow customers to legally unlock their cell phones once their contracts have ended. It would also direct the Library of Congress to consider adding tablets to the list of unlockable devices.

For smaller carriers, unlocking phones would open up the possibility of the owners of those phones moving away from the larger wireless services, which often purchase exclusive access to handsets, leaving lesser carriers with lesser devices. Locking cell phones, Librarian of Congress James Billington wrote in his notice banning locking, is an essential part of the wireless industry's dominant business model.

AT&T, responding to the recent unlocking push, has already said that it will unlock a device for any customer whose account is in good standing and has been active for at least 60 days and who has fulfilled the device's service contract.

Unlocking phones would likely be a first step toward trying to encourage greater competition in the wireless arena. The disparity in size between the major national carriers and the smaller players can sometimes be described in orders of magnitude. Verizon, the nation's largest carrier, has 98 million subscribers, while AT&T has 78 million. U.S. Cellular, meanwhile, has six million customers, and some smaller CCA members have as few as 2,000.

That sort of size difference leads organizations like the CCA to push not only for wireless unlocking as a means of leveling the playing field, but also increased access to spectrum and limitations on consolidation among the larger players.