My Cellphone Unlocking Story

Aaron Poffenberger

Derek Khanna recently asked for "cellphone unlocking" stories to assist in his effort to convince Congress to repeal the section of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act that prohibits removing technology that controls access to copyrighted works. Here's mine.

My Cellphone Unlocking Story

In December 2011 my wife and I decided to buy new phones for ourselves and our children. We went to our local Costco and upgraded our T-Mobile account and bought 5 identical T-Mobile-branded phones. One of the reasons we prefer T-Mobile is their policy about cellphone unlocking: after 3 months T-Mobile will send the unlock code to the customer via email upon request. In cases where the customer needs it sooner, they'll usually accommodate.

We unlock our T-Mobile phones because they're GSM based. We've lived in England, traveled across Europe and made numerous visits to family in Central America. We prefer GSM phones because we can buy SIM cards in the country of our visit and have local numbers for family or friends to call while we're there.

After about 10 months with our new phones and plans I requested unlock codes for all 5 phones. T-Mobile were very accommodating as usual…except for my phone. For some reason their online systems had no record of the IMEI code for my phone. They looked diligently but couldn't find any record of the device. The only restriction T-Mobile place on unlocking phones is it must be one of their phones tied to a current customer account. We tried over the course of several months to get the issue resolved to no avail. Despite having receipts and other proofs of ownership T-Mobile wouldn't (and couldn't) unlock the phone.

Rather than fight the issue I decided to pay $14.00 to buy an unlock code. It was then I realized the exception for cellphone unlocking had expired. Despite being the lawful owner of the phone. Despite T-Mobile's willingness to give me the code. I couldn't get the code. At least not lawfully.

I'm no fan of this provision of the DMCA but until recently it was a theoretical nuisance because of the unlock exception. Now it's very real. My phone is locked and will remain that way. There is no recourse; there is no exception…unless I'm willing to break the law.

Or Congress recognizes a technology-owner's right to control the use and disposition of their property and repeals this section of the DMCA.


Aaron Poffenberger

Houston, TX

P.S. I gave my eldest daughter my phone after she broke hers. She's traveling to Nicaragua this month. She won't be taking the phone with her. It's locked to T-Mobile's network.

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