UK Telecoms Regulator Plans to Ban Sale of Locked Mobile Phones to Make Switching Networks Easier

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U.K. telecoms regulator Ofcom has drawn up plans to ban the sale of locked smartphone handsets that can't be used on other mobile networks until the owner pays for them to be unlocked.


The proposal is part of a consultation document published today that aims to achieve fairer treatment and easier switching for broadband and mobile customers in the U.K. The document reads:

Some providers sell locked devices so they cannot be used on another network. If customers want to keep using the same device after they switch, this practice creates additional hassle and can put someone off from switching altogether. We are proposing to ban the sale of locked mobile devices to remove this hurdle for customers.

Ofcom notes that, currently, BT Mobile/EE, Tesco Mobile and Vodafone sell devices that are locked and cannot be used on other networks until they are unlocked. Meanwhile, O2, Sky, Three and Virgin Mobile choose to sell unlocked devices to their customers.

The regulator's research found that just under half of mobile customers experience some sort of problem, such as a long delay before getting the code they need to unlock their device, being given a code that doesn't work, a loss of service if they didn't realize their device was locked before they tried to switch.

Meanwhile, to make broadband switching easier, Ofcom plans to require a customer's new broadband provider to lead the switch, and offer a seamless switching experience, regardless of whether they are moving across different fixed networks (for example, between Virgin Media and a provider using the Openreach network) or between providers of ultrafast broadband services on the same fixed network. The plan comes as there are currently no regulated processes in place for these types of switches.

If the consultation period goes smoothly, the proposals could become law in the first quarter of 2020 or 2021. The plans are a response to changes to the European regulatory framework. The Government consulted earlier this year on how to reflect these changes in UK law.

Top Rated Comments

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11 months ago
I've never understood why networks feel the need to lock contract phones anyway. If you've entered into a contract with the network, you're still obligated by law to pay off the contract even if you immediately choose to use the phone on another network. The network gets their money regardless.
Score: 8 Votes (Like | Disagree)
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11 months ago
Phone unlocking hasn’t been a huge issue for a while now, lots are sold unlocked and those locked can be unlocked promptly.

I think the unintended consequence of this could be a lack of competition on cheap handsets.

today networks can undercut each other on cheap handsets by locking the device to their network. Without this someone would buy a cheap phone from one network and use immediately on another.
Score: 2 Votes (Like | Disagree)
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11 months ago


Phone unlocking hasn’t been a huge issue for a while now, lots are sold unlocked and those locked can be unlocked promptly.

I think the unintended consequence of this could be a lack of competition on cheap handsets.

today networks can undercut each other on cheap handsets by locking the device to their network. Without this someone would buy a cheap phone from one network and use immediately on another.

You are right. That kills the incentive to discount the device or brings back 2 year contract lock ins. Everybody wants something for nothing, but wants to keep all the benefits.
Score: 2 Votes (Like | Disagree)
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11 months ago


We wouldn't need this change if companies unlocked quickly and free (lots unlock for free out of contract but not everyone). Unfortunately the fact companies make unlocking difficult and charge is precisely the reason we need it. I'll still use 2 year contracts for my phones so unlocking won't really benefit during the contract but will increase the resale value of my phones.

I concur, but there is at least one scenario where locked phones are a problem: international travel. When in my home country (or home service area) it's not an issue, but if I travel somewhere else a locked phone eliminates my option to purchase an inexpensive local SIM. For me that is unacceptable. Yes, that scenario doesn't impact the majority of consumers, but it's still an issue.
Score: 1 Votes (Like | Disagree)

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