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Ruling Frees Mobile Phones

Consumers have the right to switch mobile-phone networks and take their cell phones with them.
December 19, 2006

Mobile phones are quickly becoming the de facto communication device for most Americans. I suspect this is true for two reasons: tens of millions of handheld devices are shipped every year, and my 64-year-old father now sends me text messages to make sure I’m okay.

So it’s of no small import, according to this article in PC Magazine, that the Register of Copyrights announced last week that it is legal for mobile users to create software that enables cell phones to jump from one wireless network to another.

What does that mean, exactly? It means that your phone, which is typically tied to a specific service, can now be used with different networks if you decide to leave your carrier.

Prior to this ruling, the act of taking a phone with you after switching carriers was considered an infringement of the old carrier’s property rights. Consequently, customers were often forced to either return or throw away their old phones–that, or pay exorbitant fees to get a new phone along with their new plan.

Of course, the mobile providers have dusted off the age-old argument that limiting consumer choice means that their networks will inherently be more trustworthy. Fortunately, the government agencies in charge of oversight have finally caught on.

From the PC Magazine article:

The carriers argue that activating un-approved phones–even if they’re the exact same models they sell, like a Sprint RAZR on Verizon–will somehow damage their networks, or give a less-than-adequate experience. The first argument is the same nonsense AT&T used in the mid-20th century to force people to rent landline phones, and it’s just as empty.

This ruling is made all the more important by this particular fact: mobile phones are now gateways to Internet-based calling, which means the always-on connection allows text messages, Web surfing, e-mail, and local, long-distance, and international calls that cost a few pennies. That’s a radical change from traditional phone service.

The “open” movement is a great first step for consumers, but we haven’t quite gone all the way. Anybody who has satellite cable and its accompanying DVR service will understand why that is important. For example: you have DirecTV and decide to purchase the company’s digital video recorder because with rebates, you only pay the monthly service fee. However, two years later, Comcast comes to your town. You decide to switch from cable service providers. The problem: your DVR box doesn’t work with Comcast, so now you have to rent another box, even though you have a perfectly good DVR sitting in your home.

In other words, the Register of Copyrights took a great first step in limiting the role of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)–the law that originally prevented consumers from upgrading their own mobile phones. Now the agency needs to take the next step: freeing all of our hardware.

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