When you think of mobile phone unlocking, market stalls and back alley shops might come to mind. It’s a murky image and it’s one the networks don’t seem overly keen to dispel.
A recent YouGov survey for mobile operator giffgaff found that almost a third of mobile users weren’t sure if liberating your handset (from the network it’s initially locked to) was even legal.
Almost all operators lock phones to their networks for various reasons. The most common excuse is that they’ve paid a large subsidy for the handset, and so lock the phone to their network to ensure they recoup their investment.
Are locked phones necessary?
For your average pay-as-you-go (PAYG) customer this might come as a bit of a shock – especially when they often opt for PAYG for its flexibility, only to find out that they’re essentially locked to one network. That’s unless they want to pay as much as 20 quid to unlock the phone.
Some operators – such as Tesco Mobile – will let you unlock the phone for free after a certain amount of time (12 months in Tesco’s case), but the rules differ between operators and it can often be quite tricky to track down this information.
With contract phones, I think locking is completely unnecessary. Yes, networks are paying a higher subsidy, but you are already locked into a contract that ensures you pay them back for their initial ‘generosity’. Why should you have to jump through hoops – or even have to pay more – to use the gadget you’ve now paid for after that contract has ended?
Ofcom holds the key
Ofcom has stayed well out of it. Instead of imposing any mobile locking rules, it has simply called for operators to make their policies clear to customers. I’ll let you judge the success of that one yourself.
Instead the onus falls on us, the consumer, to ask what a network’s policy is when we’re buying a phone – which is one more thing to think about when being hassled by a (usually pushy) mobile phone salesperson. Would it be so hard for them to tell us upfront what the rules are?
I’m not saying the networks should stop locking phones – I wouldn’t want to see the end of subsidised handsets – but a common set of rules would at least mean it would be easier for us to understand where we stand.