Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, has proposed plans that would see every operator in the country banned from selling mobile phones locked to their networks - or to make it much easier for people to unlock them. Not all operators in the UK currently sell locked devices, but those that do are increasingly seen as anti-consumer.
As noted by Engadget, O2, Three and Virgin Mobile already sell unlocked devices if customers buy a phone from them outright on a subsidised contract. But big players EE and Vodafone still lock all devices sold from their stores to their network, meaning customers must work out how to unlock them if they want to change providers.
Ofcom’s research found that roughly half of people come into difficulty when trying to unlock their phone, which is not surprising. If you’re unaware that the operator is duty bound to do it for free after a certain period, third party companies will charge you inordinate amounts without letting you know the free option is there.
Granted, if you buy a phone on contract you are unlikely to switch operator until the end of that contract, which is what operators often say stops them shipping unlocked phones. But once a contract is up, people keep their phones longer and might want to change SIM to a cheaper plan.
This is where things get complicated. Even if you understand the concept of unlocking, it is not an easy process and each network has different processes to get it done for you. Luckily this can be done remotely, but it doesn’t change the fact locked phones are a legacy detail in the UK phone market.
Ofcom has proposed that either operators sell phones unlocked, or better inform customers of how to get their phones unlocked by informing them over text. But the latter involves codes and processes and Ofcom would prefer all phones were unlocked. We completely agree.