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Summary:

Should a car dealer be able to lock your ignition even after you’ve paid for the car? AT&T has locked my phone for 4 days simply because it can — which shows, again, why the FCC must take action.

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.

This is a story of a personal problem, but I’m sharing it because it could befall any one of you, and because it illustrates a deep flaw in the law: one that permits phone carriers to control devices they don’t even own.

Allow me to explain: last week, I signed up for a T-Mobile promotion that promised cheaper rates for my iPhone 4, which I own free and clear. On Friday, I inserted a new SIM card to join the new network and this is what I’ve seen ever since:

no service iPhone

The inconvenience, as you can imagine, has been extraordinary. It’s not just the loss of maps and email on the go; there’s also a growing number of people in my personal and professional life who are annoyed that I no longer make phone calls.

This might be tolerable if I was somehow at fault. Instead, T-Mobile screwed up by repeatedly assuring me that the transition would be seamless. I can live with this simple incompetence — especially as the company promised to knock $50 off my next phone bill. What’s deeply enraging is the behavior of AT&T, which is keeping my phone locked simply because it can. (To be clear, other phone carriers engage in similar locking practices).

AT&T might have had a justification — a weak one — in the past since it gave me a subsidized iPhone in return for a two year contract. But that contract ended months ago. The phone is now entirely my property and AT&T should have no right to tamper with it — anymore than a car dealer can lock the ignition of a vehicle that someone has paid for.

So what is AT&T doing about it? A supervisor (who refused to give me his ID number) told me that people at AT&T no longer accept unlock requests, and directed me to a website. I went to that website and my “status” is just the same now as when I entered the request days ago:

at&T device lock screenshot

I have no idea when this ordeal will end, especially as AT&T’s service and public relations team have basically told me to jump in the lake. I walked into an AT&T store where an employee informed me that “unlocking is easy” but that the company won’t do it. The website says the unlock process can take 5 days, but who knows? It’s already been four and I haven’t received even an email update.

As for AT&T, recall this is a company that uses public airwaves to make over $125 billion a year. The White House, which claims to be consumer-friendly, should be all over the phone locking issue and, for a while, it was. But new trade documents just published by WikiLeaks reveal that: “while the White House was publicly proclaiming its support of cellphone unlocking, it was secretly negotiating a treaty that would ban it.” So much for that.

All this makes for an irrational consumer nightmare that may or may not be related to the “Mystery of the iPhones that won’t unlock” described in the Wall Street Journal.

If there’s any hope, it lies with the FCC, an independent agency that can act on its own. Tom Wheeler, the new head of the FCC, recently told my colleague, Kevin Fitchard, that he wants to force carriers to notify customers that their phones are eligible for unshackling — or automatically unlock them. Let’s hope he follows through. In the meantime, you can reach me by email.

This story has been updated to note that other carriers engage in similar locking practices.

  1. I got my iPhone unlocked about 2 months ago. On my first call, the agent told me that it wasn’t possible. On my second call, the agent directed me to a web site. I completed the information on-line, and about 2 weeks later a recieved an email telling me that the request was complete and to backup then restore my iphone.

    Moral of the story: 1) AT&T customer services is terrible, and they don’t care. 2) Fill out the form on-line and be patient.

    Jerry

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    1. Thanks, Jerry — appreciate the insight, though I almost keeled over when I read “2 weeks.”

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    2. AT&T refuse to unlock my phone!!!!!! It’s been over month now. Today I’m told my request is denied because information provided does not match the information on the account. I was on a family plan so they want the acct holders’ name, acct holders’ email, and acct holders’ AT&T account Passcode. Initially all the csr told me was to enter my information on the request now I’m told something totally different. I agree that once the contract is completed and all is done the phone should automatically be unlocked. AT&T can automatically lock your phone before using. Then in return can automatically unlock your phone after all is complete. No balance on acct why is AT&T holding my phone hostage? I also was reading about this new law with at&t as of October 31,2013 that changed the whole unlocking process which gives at&t unlimited authority on your phone you buy with your money.

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  2. The day after unlocking iPhones became available on AT&T, I got on with chat and my phone was unlocked within the hour. But if I had a big enough soapbox to stand on to get my way, I’d probably stand on it too.

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  3. Related story:

    I bought an HTC One X (AT&T branded but unlocked with a factory code) last year on ebay from a highly rated seller. I used it on Straight Talk for a few days and then the service cut out. I called Straight Talk and they said there wasn’t a problem as far as they could tell, but the phone couldn’t send or receive calls.

    So I called AT&T and they said they had suspended service on the phone, or black listed it. I asked if the phone was stolen and they told me ‘no’. I asked if the original owner was delinquent on his/her account and they said ‘no’.

    What I understand is that AT&T had a ’6 month exclusive’ on the phone and they would black list any phones that were used on other networks. I’m pretty sure the black list was implemented as a way to stop the sale of stolen phones, but I was assured by an AT&T rep and his manager that this phone wasn’t stolen.

    So, just AT&T being anti-competitive and abusive because they can. I’m not surprised that such a user-hostile company would refuse to unlock your phone.

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  4. I left AT&T after a number of reasonably happy years and went to T-Mobile. AT&T unlocked my iPhone in about 2 or 3 hours even though I was leaving them. I recently had them unlock another phone and it took less than a day. I think your case isn’t the norm and if you have trouble all you need to do is call AT&T or get on their chat and they will try to help.

    After 2 months of constant screw-ups on the behalf of T-Mobile I returned to AT&T. The short version is T-Mobile took 10 days to ship my SIM but they took control of my phone the day I ordered service. Translation. No phone for 10 days. Then I discovered that they considered my home to be in a roaming area so they capped my data. Then I ordered a 5s which never arrived and they lied to me each time I asked what was going on. And that is the short version. The AT&T short version is easier. I went back, got a 5s in under a week and when I said I thought my bill was too much they issues me a credit for $160 and even that only took 5 minutes to do.

    The lesson I learned though was that if you think AT&T has bad customer service, wait til you experience T-Mobile.

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  5. In my case it took 5 days to process the unlock request. After that they should email the instructions for unlock, basically you insert the new SIM card, restart the phone, it should work.

    That was done a year ago.

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  6. if you would have requested the unlock before porting to t-mobile the request most like would go through very fast. my experience is to expect significant delay if submitted for unlock as ‘former customer’.

    golden rule: always unlock first and than switch carriers.

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    1. I suspect you’re right, Frank, that unlock is slower for a ‘former customer.’

      “Unlock first” is good advice. I wish I’d heard it earlier (despite speaking with both ATT and TMobile reps about the process before switching, and neither raised the issue). That’s why I think Wheeler’s idea of notice, or simply forcing carriers to unlock after contract, is a good idea.

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  7. I got mine from eBay and was locked, I emailed AT&T and filled out the online forum and waited about 3 days and needed to reset my iPhone and when I re activated it it said congratulations your device is unlocked :-). So I was really surprised on that one!

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  8. In 2010 I moved out of the U.S. I had an iphone 3G, and my contract had recently passed the two year mark. I called up AT&T to unlock my phone so I could use it with a Russian sim card. They said, unequivocally, that they wouldn’t do it. So I called Apple and asked for a factory unlock and they also said no. In the end, I just jailbroke my phone to unlock it, but that was a bit of a pain.

    I see the wisdom in buying unlocked phones now. Subsidized locked phones are a ripoff. If you can’t save up $650 for a phone, maybe you should work out your finances before you sign up for a $70+ monthly phone bill.

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  9. I didn’t have any issues unlocking my 4S.
    I assume you did the iTunes backup, erase all settings and then a restore right? When I did that I got the message that the phone was unlocked. So first you register at the website and after 24hrs you do the iTunes thing. Worked like a charm for me.

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  10. Mr. Obama and his staff have much more important issues to spend his time on, so I see no reason for you to vent your anger at him in your title. A delay and painful process like you’re dealing with to get your phone unlocked is not a justification for the U.S. stopping their work on urgent national issues. Sorry for your pain, but it seems like AT&T is the problem here, and you can always hack your phone or sell it and buy a new one if you aren’t patient enough to fight through the process. If you think your issue is common enough to require legislation, talk to your legislator. The White House is not the legislative branch of the government.

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    1. Here. Here. Well said.

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