WASHINGTON, February 7, 2024 – Consumer advocates are urging the Federal Communications Commission to support the mandated unlocking of all cellular telephone devices on the T-Mobile network, citing competition concerns amid the carrier’s pending purchase of Mint Mobile and Ultra Mobile.
The following month, the Department of Justice announced an antitrust probe into the deal, citing a growing consolidation trend and fears the move would push wireless prices higher for consumers.
In a Monday letter following a meeting with FCC officials, consumer advocates at the Benton Institute, Public Knowledge, the Open Technology Institute, and Consumer Reports underlined worries that the loss of Mint Mobile and Ultra Mobile as separate entities would create “unnecessary obstacles” for mobile users seeking to migrate to another service provider if their phones are locked to T-Mobile.
The letter’s signatories urged the FCC to force T-Mobile to unlock the Mint and Ultra mobile devices in their network in the immediate term, pointing to a prior mandate placed on Verizon after its acquisition of Tracfone, which required a shortening of the unlocking period for Tracfone devices from 12 months to 60 days.
T-Mobile argues that FCC action is unnecessary due to preexisting unlocking mandates under DOJ’s final judgment. However, the letter claims, the final judgment guidelines are insufficient because they allow T-Mobile to prevent prepaid and postpaid phones from being unlocked for a year and for the remainder of the contract, respectively.
The letter argues that locked devices stymie competition by creating an arduous process for users who seek to switch carriers. Lack of competition could spur price increases, harming low-income consumers due to their economic inability to buy a new device or new plan, the letter says. A mass of unlocked phones would also create a large market of used devices, available for consumers at a reduced price, the letter adds.
The letter outlines a number of suggested mandates on T-Mobile that it said would increase competition.
The letter suggests T-Mobile do the following following any approved acquisition: establish a 30-day unlocking period for all T-Mobile devices operating on their network after closing, establish a 60-day period to automatically unlock all devices on their network capable of doing so, provide instructions to users on how to manually unlock devices incapable of automatically doing so, and make all devices provided through T-Mobile capable of automatically unlocking within 2 years.
The letter comes amid heightened scrutiny over T-Mobile’s corporate acquisitions. In addition to Mint and Ultra Mobile, in 2020, T-Mobile acquired Sprint in a merger valued at $26 billion. The mobile wireless company was subsequently served with an antitrust lawsuit over the deal, alleging that it substantially reduced competition within the cellular industry.