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A move by Verizon Wireless to resume electronically locking smartphones in its stores may lead to hiccups for subscribers who need to travel internationally soon after buying a phone. And it should remind all of us to think about how the phones we think we own can be made to function like somebody else’s property.
At first Verizon will lock phones—meaning you can’t use them on another wireless service—until a customer buys one and activates Verizon service on it. But sometime later this spring, the nation’s largest wireless carrier will keep phones locked for an unannounced period even after subscribers put them into service. CNet first reported the move.
Verizon says a surge in thefts forced it to end its practice of selling phones unlocked, ready for use on any compatible wireless service.
“Armed robberies were up more than 200% in the last year over the year prior,” read a statement from Tami Erwin, executive vice president of wireless operations at the carrier, provided by Verizon. “Just this weekend, four armed, masked men, stormed into one of our locations and held employees at gunpoint as they loaded phones from our inventory into a truck.”
That statement did not provide more details about Verizon’s subsequent plan to keep phones locked post-purchase.
An analyst briefed by Verizon, GlobalData’s Avi Greengart, said his read on Verizon’s intentions—again, the carrier isn’t saying definitively—is that this initial lockdown will last two or three months. Then, the carrier would unlock these phones automatically even when subscribers still owe payments on their devices.
That would leave customers who later develop subscribers’ remorse free to move to a competitor—for example, Comcast’s Xfinity Mobile, which resells Verizon’s network and just began allowing customers to bring their own devices to the service.
“The consumer hassle comes in if you buy it and you then go off to Europe,” said Greengart. There and in much of the rest of the world, Verizon charges $10 a day in roaming fees, well above what you’d pay to pop a prepaid SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card from a local service into your phone.
Greengart also noted that Verizon’s move violates the spirit, it not the exact text, of an open-devices condition imposed by the Federal Communications Commission in a 2008 spectrum auction. But he doubted that the anti-regulation Republican majority now running the FCC would object. An FCC spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Verizon vs. AT&T and T-Mobile
The policies at the other three nationwide wireless carriers remain stricter, except for military personnel facing a deployment elsewhere: If you bought the phone from them, you need to finish paying for it before they’ll unlock it.
Those three firms, however, impose different waiting periods to unlock a new device that has been paid off. AT&T requires that your account have 60 days of paid service, Sprint needs the phone to have been in service for 50 days, and T-Mobile has a 40-day rule.
The potential cost to world travelers is steepest at AT&T, since Sprint and T-Mobile now include free low-speed data and text messaging overseas while their larger rival charges $10 a day in most countries. T-Mobile also says it will unlock a phone that still has payments due if a subscriber will be traveling to a country where its Simple Gobal roaming isn’t available.
Remember that at each of the four carriers, you can sidestep all of these restrictions by buying a phone directly from its manufacturer, unlocked out of the box. Both Apple and Google offer installment-payment options for unlocked iPhones and Pixel phones that you can move from one compatible service to another as you wish.
At AT&T and T-Mobile, inserting your SIM card into the new phone should get it online. Sprint and Verizon use a different wireless standard that doesn’t fully tie your account to the SIM, so you’ll need to finish activating the device by logging into your account at their sites.
(Disclosure: I also write for Yahoo Finance, a subsidiary of Verizon’s media division Oath.)
Rob Pegoraro is a tech writer based out of Washington, D.C. To submit a tech question, e-mail Rob at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/robpegoraro.
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