Americans are one step closer to being able to "unlock" their cell phones and change mobile carriers. Today (July 25) the House of Representatives just unanimously — yes, unanimously — passed a bill that would it legal to switch mobile carriers on the same mobile device, also called "unlocking" the phone.
That means that if you purchased your phone with an AT&T contract, once that contract expires you're free to begin a new contract with T-Mobile on the same device. Called the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, the bill is a win for consumers, as it will give them more control over their smartphone devices. Now all that remains before the bill becomes law is for President Obama to sign it.
The bill does not forbid "bulk unlocking," or companies that specialize in reselling unlocked phones or helping consumers unlock their phones. However, it doesn't expressly allow it either; the bill makes no mention of bulk unlocking. Earlier versions of the bill explicitly banned bulk unlocking, but the Senate bill nixed that part of the bill, and the House made no changes to the Senate's version before passing it.
While significant, the bill won't actually change much now, since the major U.S. mobile carriers —AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and US Cellular —agreed to allow unlocking back in December 2013.
Unlocking a cell phone first became illegal in 1998, under section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. However, between 2009 and 2013, the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress granted an exemption to section 1201. This exemption expired in 2012.