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Q&A on Cellphone Sovereignty

Published: Monday, July 14, 2014 11:42 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, July 15, 2014 5:14 p.m. CDT

Q: What is the cellphone “unlocking” bill making its way through Congress?

A: Lawmakers have dialed up bipartisan legislation that would restore the ability of consumers to more easily transfer their cellphone service to other wireless carriers. The Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act would repeal action by the U.S. Copyright Office of the Library of Congress that essentially locks in cellphone owners to stick with the same network indefinitely. The result is anti-consumer and anti-competitive. American consumers ought to be able to take full advantage of the free marketplace where robust competition drives down prices and drives up innovation as businesses in the private sector compete for market share. 

As Ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Democratic Chairman and I secured a ringing endorsement from the 18-member committee, winning unanimous approval to advance the legislation to the full Senate. Our bill would reinstate the previous Library of Congress rule that allows consumers to unlock their cellphones from their respective carriers once the original contract terms of service have been met.

The bill also directs the Librarian of Congress to consider whether other electronic devices, such as tablets, should be eligible for consumers to unlock from an expired contract in search of a better deal. The House of Representatives has passed a similar bill. Let’s hope the Senate Majority Leader will hang up on partisan gridlock and let consumers off the hook. It’s time to restore a consumer’s right to unlock his or her cellphone from expired contracts and shop around for the best service with the best value. 

Q: Why did the federal rule make transferring cellphones to a different network provider illegal in some cases? 

A: Too often it seems like the federal government is disconnected from reality.  In an effort to curb phone trafficking, the Library of Congress failed to establish its previous exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The exemption allowed cellphone consumers to unlock their mobile device from an expired service plan and switch to another wireless carrier without running afoul of proprietary copyrighted technology.  The actions by the Library of Congress have caused confusion, rather than clarification. It’s unclear whether there would be adverse consequences for law-abiding cellphone owners who switch carriers. Consumers caught in the crosshairs of the revised federal rule could face stiff financial penalties and even prison time. This makes no sense.

The telecommunications industry has come a long way since the U.S. Patent Office issued patent 174,465 on March 7, 1876, to Alexander Graham Bell.  It has revolutionized the U.S. economy and our American way of life. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that nearly 81 percent of U.S. households below the federal poverty level have cellphones. And fully 91 percent of U.S. adults own a cellphone.  Americans have embraced 21st century technology and public policy governing telecommunications business and industry needs to keep pace. Laws and regulations need to support innovation, investment, competition and consumer choice, not disconnect from the fundamentals of free enterprise that have fostered U.S. growth and prosperity. This bipartisan bill puts control back into the hands of the consumer.  It also answers the call to foster more competition in the marketplace. It’s time to say good-bye to broken bureaucratic rulemaking. Let’s hope Washington gets the message.

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