Let freedom ring: Phone unlocking is about to get easier in the US

As carriers begin looking to abandon the phone subsidy model, simple phone unlocking for consumers is an issue gaining exposure. Reuters says the FCC is expected on Thursday to discuss changes to carrier policies on handset unlocking once consumers have reached the end of their contracts; something that sounds like it should be simple in theory, but can be a hassle in reality.

Just last month, my colleague Jeff Roberts found this out the hard way:

“I lost phone service 4 days ago because AT&T decided to vandalize my property — my iPhone — and, despite earlier assurances, it looks like the White House has no intention of doing anything about the policies that let the company get away with it.”

Roberts owns his iPhone 4, free and clear, he says, and lost service when moving his handset to T-Mobile’s(s tmus) network because the phone was still locked to AT&T’s(s t) network. Various conversations with AT&T customer service led him to see the difficulties that customers face when trying to properly unlock their phones in the U.S.

No Service iPhone

So what’s hopefully going to change so that consumers won’t have to jump through hoops to unlock a cell phone?

Carriers may start notifying consumers by text or email when their phone is eligible to be unlocked; handy since not everyone knows when they’ve met their contractual obligations with a carrier. The FCC is also looking to have network operators review and rule on all unlock requests within two days.

Whatever the FCC works out with the network providers could take some time to implement, so don’t expect changes overnight. But this policy review itself is timely as there’s a shift in the U.S. handset business. Starting first with T-Mobile, operators are finally starting to unbundle the cost of a phone from the cost of services. That should have happened long ago in my opinion, but the reason it’s changing now is because of smartphone saturation in the U.S.

Before nearly everyone had a smartphone, carriers needed to provide incentives on the purchase of such devices to get customers on their mobile broadband networks. That’s part of the reason why a carrier may subsidize two-thirds or more of the actual phone cost: That $199 iPhone 5s, for example, actually costs $649 if you buy it yourself. Carriers pay money to handset makers to make up the difference.

With the bulk of U.S. consumers on networks using their smartphones, however, carriers don’t need to pay such subsidies so over time, consumers are more likely to be charged the full price for smartphones. And if you pay that full price, you should be able to use the device on the network of your choice, meaning the phone should be easily unlocked if not be default.