Unlocking, Jailbreaking, and the (New) Law


eHow Tech Blog

topThere’s been a lot of buzz about unlocking cell phones these days, mostly because president Obama just signed the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act. This is really great news since it will not only save many people money, but it might also keep tons of unusable phones out of landfills. But not everyone understands what “unlocking” their phone means.  Many of us weren’t even aware that their phone was “locked” in the first place.  To add to the confusion, some folks think that unlocking is the same thing as jailbreaking a phone. So, let’s explore what this all means.


When you sign up for service with a company like AT&T, you get a discount on your phone in exchange for committing to a contract (usually 2 years).  During that time, your phone is “locked” to AT&T, meaning you can only use that particular phone on the AT&T network. In theory this seems fair.  However, if you discover that you get shoddy reception in your house, that contract can feel more like a jail sentence.  It gets worse if you’re an international traveler.  When abroad, all the calls on your trip are subject to expensive roaming fees.  It would be much cheaper and more convenient to purchase a short-term contract with the local cell service.  But a locked phone prevents you from doing this. Think of it like an umbilical cord you have to use even though you’re old enough to eat on your own!

Locked Cell-Phone 001


Using a regular phone is like eating at a restaurant where the chef won’t allow any substitutions to his perfect creations. Using a jailbroken phone is like having a personal chef. If you’ve ever wanted to make some customizations to your phone, but found you couldn’t, wanted to move the brightness button that’s buried 14 windows deep to a shortcut on the home screen, or wanted to use an app on your iPhone, but found it is not available in the App Store, then jailbreaking is for you.

Instead of using the phone the way the manufacturer intends, you bypass those limitations, allowing you to customize to suit your needs.  Once jailbroken, you are free to download thousands of apps from online app stores like Cydia and make a vast number of personalized adjustments.  

Jailbreaking a Cell Phone 001Jailbreaking a Cell Phone 002


Generally, the only time you can unlock a cell phone is after it’s completely paid for — the carrier must do the unlocking, and AT&T isn’t going to unlock it for you until your contract is over and the handset is paid for. That means it can be expensive to unlock many phones, because you have to wait for the contract to end or pay for a phone outright. And many smartphones are pricey — you might spend as much as $600 for some phones to get the privilege.

The downsides to jailbreaking can be a tad more complicated. Jailbreaking means replacing the phone’s operating system, which is as complex and dangerous as swapping out a person’s major organs.  Opening the phone to customizations also opens it up to potential network problems, security breaches, and unpredictable performance — not to mention the fact that it voids your warranty. When your phone stops working properly it makes everyone unhappy – the manufacturer, the cell phone carrier, and you.  But in some cases the downside of jailbreaking is only bad for the cell phone carriers.  One example is with Wi-Fi hotspot capability where you use your phone as a bridge for your laptop to connect to the Internet when there is no other Wi-Fi available.  Most cell carriers charge $30/month to allow this.  But if your phone is jailbroken, you can do the same thing with no fees by using a free or low cost app.  Great for the customer, bad for the cell phone carrier.


Probably the biggest problem, until recently, has been the legality of it all.  The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, DMCA,  initially made jailbreaking illegal.  However, following the We The People petition in 2010, jailbreaking your smart phone was exempted from this law.

Bottom line: Jailbreaking is legal. A little scary to perform on your expensive new phone, but legal nonetheless.

And what about unlocking?  Unlocking your phone has had a sketchy history. Technically illegal, the major carriers (AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon) all agreed to unlock phones under certain circumstances. To resolve the ambiguity, though, Congress passed the bi-partisan Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, which President Obama has now signed into law. As a result, unlocking your phone is now exempted from DMCA. It is legal to unlock your phone.

Bottom Line

While the legality of jailbreaking seems settled for now, the unlocking issue may be far from over. Next year the Library of Congress is required to review the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act.  Their review could allow the Copyright Office to reverse the decision, changing the rules for unlocking phones all over again.

No one said this was simple.

There’s one other hitch in unlocking a phone. Even if your phone is unlocked, it doesn’t mean switching carriers is easy.  There are two types of cell phones: GSM, used by AT&T and T-Mobile, and CDMA, used by Verizon and Sprint. Essentially, these are two different languages. A GSM phone won’t work on the CDMA network, and vice versa.  So even if you want to jump from AT&T to Verizon you still have to buy a new phone.

GSM vs CDMA Cell Phone 001

With all the laws, contracts and technologies, keeping up with cell phone technology can be mind-numbing.  But there’s way more on the upside than the downside. For example, you don’t have to remember anyone’s phone number anymore since it’s available at just a press of button.  That said, I bet you can’t call your best friend without the speed dial.

Go ahead….try it!

Image credit: Jonathan Grossman

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