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Verizon Wireless will soon begin locking the phones it sells to customers, a move that will prevent the phones from being activated on any other carrier’s network. But Verizon says it is taking this measure to deter theft that occurs before customers purchase phones, and that Verizon will unlock the phones for customers after they’re purchased.
What isn’t clear is how long customers will have to wait before the phones are unlocked, and exactly what steps customer will have to take to do the unlocking. Verizon says its stores have been victimized by increasingly frequent armed robberies.
Verizon isn’t allowed to lock phones to its network because of open access requirements that are specific to the “C Block” 700MHz wireless spectrum that Verizon purchased in 2008 and uses for its 4G LTE network. Since then, Verizon has generally had more customer-friendly unlocking policies than other carriers.
Verizon contends that its upcoming change does not violate the “spirit” of those rules. The change was reported today by CNET, which has several quotes from a Verizon official and Verizon spokesperson.
“This change does not impact the spirit of that agreement as it is designed to deter theft by those who engage in identity theft or other fraud,” a Verizon spokesperson told CNET. “It is not inconsistent with our obligations under the C Block.”
We asked the FCC for comment about whether the new locking policy violates the open access rules. We will update this story if we hear back.
As of now, Verizon’s Device Unlocking Policy still says, “We do not lock our 4G LTE devices, and no code is needed to program them for use with another carrier.”
According to CNET, the change will occur in the spring. The news site says that there will be “little immediate impact” for customers because the phones will be “unlocked immediately through a software update.”
But the unlocking also might not be so “immediate,” the story notes later on:
Verizon wouldn’t say how long the locked period will be once the policy change is made in the spring, adding only that it’ll provide an update ahead of when it rolls out the policy. It also declined to provide a specific timeline. The wait period is in place to deter scammers from signing up for service using stolen identities to get a new phone and immediately turning around and selling the device.
If Verizon unlocks the phones for customers immediately after a sale or as part of the sale process, and without any hassle, then this might not be a big deal. But we don’t know if that will be the case.
Of course, customers can avoid carrier-imposed locks by purchasing phones directly from manufacturers and activating them on a carrier network afterward.
We asked Verizon for more information on when the change will take effect, the exact process for customers to unlock phones after purchase, and for a more detailed explanation of how the change complies with the open access requirement.
Verizon did not answer our questions about the impact on customers. Instead, the company said it hasn’t “shared details on what changes will take place this spring.”
Verizon did provide us with more details on why it’s making the changes. A recent armed robbery and a general increase in robberies was cited in the statement we received from Tami Erwin, executive VP of wireless operations for Verizon:
This is an industry problem which becomes a Verizon problem because our phones have been unlocked all the time. Armed robberies were up more than 200 percent in the last year over the year prior. Just this weekend, four armed, masked men, stormed into one of our locations and held employees at gunpoint as they loaded phones from our inventory into a truck. We need to protect our employees from criminals with guns and protect customers from criminals who try to use their identities to fraudulently purchase phones.
Verizon said the most recent robbery occurred at one of its stores in California, and a Web search turns up several recent examples of robberies.
The CNET article says the change is being made in part because of “iPhones, which are a top target for thieves because of their high resale value.” The change “will make our phones exponentially less desirable to criminals,” Verizon told CNET.
Regardless of whether a phone is locked to a particular network, Apple customers can protect the personal data on their phones in case of theft by using the device’s Activation Lock feature. Android has similar features that prevent other people from accessing data on stolen phones.
The new policy could help Verizon “protect itself from competition, with the locked phones making it tougher to switch,” the CNET story says.
UPDATE: Verizon provided some more details to Ars after we published this article.
“Starting today, phones coming into our stores will be locked until they are activated, at which time they will become immediately unlocked. This is to prevent them from being stolen while in transit or in inventory,” Verizon said.
That’s just a temporary solution to the theft problem. In the spring, Verizon will set up a slightly different system in which phones apparently will remain locked for a longer period of time after customers buy them. “Later this spring, we will extend that lock for a brief period of time to help us ensure the phones are not being purchased by someone using a stolen identity,” Verizon said.
Rules don’t allow “blanket loophole”
One lawyer and consumer advocate is skeptical of Verizon’s interpretation of the C Block rules.
“I don’t see anything in the requirement that allows such a blanket loophole,” John Bergmayer, senior counsel at consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, told Ars today. “If it is to deter theft, then they should just allow the owner of the phone to easily unlock the phone without going through some rigmarole, right?”
The handset locking prohibition that Verizon must follow says that carriers may not “configure handsets it provides to prohibit use of such handsets on other providers’ networks.” If anyone complains to the FCC, the burden of proof is on Verizon to “demonstrate that it has adopted reasonable network standards and reasonably applied those standards in the complainant’s case.”
It’s still hard for customers to successfully bring a complaint, especially when the complaint resolution process might take longer than just waiting for Verizon to fix the problem. In 2013, we wrote about a Verizon customer who bought an LTE-enabled Nexus 7 from Google and was prevented from using the device on Verizon’s network because the carrier hadn’t “certified” the device yet. The problem dragged on for months even though the open access rules require Verizon to support all compatible devices.
Bergmayer said he is “wary when carriers come up with plausible-sounding public interest reasons for why they might lock people’s devices.”
“If Verizon just keeps phones locked while they’re in its own retail inventory, then that’s fine,” Bergmayer said. “But even ‘unlocking on demand,’ while pretty good, will still cause headaches because people don’t necessarily understand this stuff and there will be people who end up with phones they can’t use.”
CNET describes one scenario in which Verizon’s changed policy could be a problem for customers.
“[T]he policy change in the spring could be a hassle for customers who buy a new phone and then go overseas,” CNET writes. “One way of saving on international roaming fees is to buy a SIM card from a local carrier. If you have a locked phone, you’ll need to contact Verizon to unlock the device before switching out your SIM card—assuming the carrier will make the exception.”