Mobile Operators Banned From Selling Locked Phones

British communications regulator Ofcom has ruled that mobile operators from December will be banned from selling mobile phones locked to their networks.

For years operators in the UK have sold phones that are ‘locked’ to particular mobile networks. The idea is to make it harder for users to switch networks, with users having to approach the operator directly (or a third party) to ‘unlock’ the device, often for a fee.

Ofcom had warned in December 2019 that mobile operators could face intervention over the selling of locked handsets, as part of its efforts to make it easier for people to switch network providers.

Locked phones

However mobile operators have previously said that their policy of selling locked phones was designed to help deter theft and fraud.

But that cut little ice with the regulator, and Ofcom in 2019 found that BT/EE, Tesco Mobile and Vodafone were still selling mobile phones that could not be used on other networks, unless they are unlocked.

Unlocking those handsets could cost around £10 (although sometimes the operator will unlock a handset if the user is out of contract for example).

Ofcom previously said that its research found that more than a third of people (35 percent) who decided against switching said this put them off switching providers.

So now Ofcom has now announced that mobile phone companies will be banned from selling ‘locked’ handsets, under a range of new rules that will “make switching even simpler.”

Ofcom said that almost half of customers who try to unlock their device experience difficulties doing so. Customers, it found, may experience a long delay before getting the code they need to unlock their device; the code might not work; or they could suffer a loss of service if they did not realise their device was locked before they tried to switch.

“So following consultation, we have confirmed that mobile companies will be banned from selling locked phones – allowing people to move to a different network with their existing handset, hassle-free,” said Ofcom. “The new rules will come in from December 2021.”

Easier switching

“We know that lots of people can be put off from switching because their handset is locked,” explained Selina Chadha, Ofcom’s connectivity director.

“So we’re banning mobile companies from selling locked phones, which will save people time, money and effort – and help them unlock better deals,” said Chadha.

Another measures that Ofcom is implementing is that operators will have to provide customers of a summary of the main terms of their contract in writing – before they sign up. This will include, for example, contract length and prices, and broadband providers will have to tell customers the minimum internet speeds they can expect.

At the moment, O”, Sky, Three and Virgin only sell unlocked handsets.

But Vodafone, BT/EE, and Tesco Mobile sell locked handsets, although this will soon come to an end.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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