<!--:es-->Cell phone unlocking on the rise<!--:-->

Cell phone unlocking on the rise

Say you want to use your fancy new Samsung Instinct on a carrier other than Sprint. It can probably be done… but it’s likely to be a pain, and it may brick your phone altogether, as cellular unlocking always runs the risk of making your phone inoperable.

Now, MetroPCS (the scrappy, “no contract” regional outlet which has blossomed to 4.4 million subscribers) has launched a service offering to unlock any phone sold by its competitors for use on the MetroPCS network. The unlocking service costs $30 and comes with a free month’s worth of calling service. (MetroPCS is a CDMA network, so phones sold by AT&T and T-Mobile aren’t eligible. Sorry, iPhone fans!)

Some observers are now expecting other carriers to follow suit, citing the potential for MetroPCS to quickly grab half a million new customers based on the service alone. Imagine the industry havoc if T-Mobile were to launch an iPhone unlocking service to grab customers from AT&T…

Naturally, carriers and phone manufacturers aren’t thrilled about the idea of all of this. Unlocking a phone is often a violation of the carrier’s terms of service or the phone’s EULA (or both), and as BusinessWeek notes, Virgin Mobile and others have already won lawsuits against customers for buying locked phones, unlocking them, then reselling them at a premium as unlocked handsets, but most of those cases have targeted people who resell handsets in bulk. Virgin has complained that the practice has cost the company over $50 million to date.

But the legal tide may be shifting toward the unlockers’ favor. One lawyer has sued Verizon and Sprint, with the upshot being that the companies are now supposed to actually help you unlock your phone, but only after the expiration of your contract. The FCC also seems sympathetic to the plight of the unlocker: While it doesn’t specifically address unlocking, one of the terms placed on the winner of the recent 700MHz cellular spectrum auction requires that any device that supports the frequency must be allowed to connect to the network. Verizon, which won the auction, has been fighting the rule, but it nonetheless shows that the tide may be shifting that direction.