An iPhone Isn't An Unalienable Right

Several organizations, including the Free Press, Mozilla and some rural carriers, have asked the Federal Communication Commission to forbid exclusive deals between device makers and carriers. You know, like the deal AT&T (s T) has with the iPhone (s aapl), or the myriad others that keep certain hot phones with certain carriers? The complaint was filed last year, but with the FCC focused on an election, the DTV transition, white spaces, universal service fund reform and a ton of other issues, it never made it as a big concern.

Earlier this year the groups tried again, sending out press releasing to members of the media trying to raise the issue a second time, possibly before a more favorable FCC chair. They’ve succeeded at drumming up some press. Anyone who wants to buy an iPhone without committing to the AT&T network will likely sympathize with the cause.

But today, TechDirt Wireless argues that the ability to move a phone from carrier to carrier would make device prices higher for all, because carriers could lose a subscriber before the carrier recouped the value of their subsidy. There are two problems with the argument.

One is that exclusivity and unlocked phones are different issues. A lack of exclusivity means someone could buy the same phone at a variety of carriers but still be locked in to a particular network. This keeps subsidies as a viable strategy. The second reason, even if devices were to be unlocked, is that carriers could require customers to pay a termination fee should they choose to leave before the carrier could recoup the value of the subsidy.

That said, I do think we need some actual debate on this campaign. Exclusivity is a good way for carriers to differentiate their service for customers, who may see one wireless carrier as just like another. There’s no inalienable right to an iPhone on your preferred network, much like there’s no right to an In-n-Out resturant in your city. Without proving pricing problems associated with such deals, getting the government to regulate this seems pretty extreme — even if people in Alaska can’t buy iPhones.