Last Friday, Jeff Benjamin broke the news on iDownloadBlog that his Verizon iPhone 5 was unlocked. And not just unlocked for international use only—which Verizon has been offering for customers whose accounts have been in good standing for 60 days—but fully unlocked. As in works with domestic carriers like AT&T and Verizon unlocked. He even posted a video showing a cut-down AT&T Micro SIM in his Verizon iPhone 5 providing access to AT&T’s network.
Jeff wasn’t the only one. I’ve heard from a few other people that they’ve been able to use their iPhone 5 abroad. For example, Kris Koeller tweeted that he was able to drop a trimmed down Vodafone prepaid SIM he bought in Portugal (€10 for 10GB of data!) into his brand new Verizon iPhone 5 and it worked just fine.
That, my friends, is kind of a big deal for iPhone customers here in the States.
Yes, you Europeans can snicker a bit more about the sorry state of affairs when it comes to American mobile phone network operators. Done yet? Ok.
Thinking this was a fluke and that surely this was a temporary thing that Verizon would lock up later, I dug for more information. After all, when Sprint started shipping the iPhone 4S, they shipped them unlocked and then pushed a SIM lock later on over the network. For a while, I didn't find much. Then, today while chasing links, I came across this page on the Howard Forums Mobile Community with a post from Mikey Silver that said:
I've been reading up on the open access provisions in regards to the C-Block of 700 mhz LTE spectrum. There is a very specific line saying that a licensee (Verizon) cannot configure devices to be locked against use on another network. This means that Verizon would be violating Federal law if the iPhone 5's sim slot is even partially locked. Unlike on the iPhone 4S - these regulations mean that Verizon must even allow an AT&T sim card to be used in any Verizon iPhone 5.
Mikey’s post went to point out the this was defined in the Title 47, Part 27, Subpart B, Section 27.16 of the Code of Federal Regulations. In a nutshell, for devices that operate in the 700 MHz C block—which Verizon paid $9.4 billion dollars in 2008 for a license to use for their new LTE network—the following paragraph applies:
(e) Handset locking prohibited. No licensee may disable features on handsets it provides to customers, to the extent such features are compliant with the licensee's standards pursuant to paragraph (b)of this section, nor configure handsets it provides to prohibit use of such handsets on other providers' networks.
Whoa. Thank you FCC. Or, maybe I should be thanking Google as they fought for consumer protection requirements during the 700MHz block C auction. Really, I have to say that I’m sorta shocked that this little bit of consumer protection made it in to the US Code like this. And quite pleased. After all, there’s absolutely no need for carriers to lock down SIM slots when they’ve already got you on the hook for a contract.
So, is this the reason Verizon is shipping the iPhone 5 unlocked? It seems that way, but Verizon might just be being nice on this one. Somehow, I doubt it.
There’s one obvious follow-on question: is there a similar regulation in place for the 700MHz B block of spectrum that AT&T is using? The answer seems to be no. Of note: Google didn’t participate in the auction for that block.
I’ve updated my Which iPhone 5 for a Global Traveller? post in light of this information. This tilts things even more in favor of Verizon for people who frequently go abroad.
Of course, if you use your unlocked Verizon iPhone 5 on AT&T, you won’t be able to access the LTE bands that AT&T uses and will be limited to using HSPA+. So, it’s not quite perfect.
I was already leaning towards moving to Verizon for my next iPhone for a number of reasons—see note 1 above and no, I haven’t yet bought my iPhone 5—but this is certainly frosting on the proverbial cake.
Terin Stock tweeted that Google had pushed for open network requirements during the auction process for the 700MHz C block of spectrum. Seth A. Roby joined in with a two links with more information. Based on that, I updated the post with a thank you to Google.
The Associate Press reports that Verizon will not relock the iPhone 5. Quote: “Verizon Wireless spokeswoman Brenda Raney said Monday that Verizon does not plan to relock the iPhone 5.”
Matt Drance tweets: “Now, whether or not VZW is screaming at a lobbyist right now is another question.” Indeed… I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they were. However, I really hope that the market rewards them well for being forced to be open. After all, they’ve always got those contracts.
Chris Sacca tweets in a reply to Rakesh Agrawal that Google didn’t participate in the 700MHz B block of spectrum. That explains why AT&T doesn’t have to unlock their iPhones. I’ve updated the last paragraph of my post above accordingly. Of note: Chris worked on Google’s 700MHz auction efforts.