Locked in a cell: Wireless users punished for canceling early

You probably didn't know that. I've never heard AT&T or any other wireless company promote such a service, and I couldn't find any mention of it in AT&T's customer contract.

A Verizon spokesman, meanwhile, said the company did not deliberately block its handsets from being used on other networks. But because of technical incompatibility, he said, the company's phones won't work with either AT&T's or T-Mobile's services.

It's possible you can persuade a wireless company to provide the code needed to unlock a handset (you can say you're traveling abroad and need to use a foreign carrier's SIM card). Or you can try to buy a code online. They're available for about $25 from a wide variety of sites.

But no one should have to go to such trouble. It's your cellphone. You bought it. You own it. The notion that you can't use it as you please is ludicrous.

Imagine if your TV couldn't receive HBO just because you canceled Showtime. This isn't a perfect analogy -- you didn't buy your TV through Showtime -- but it's close. Bottom line: It's your TV.

The most prominent example of a locked handset these days is Apple's snazzy iPhone. You can spend $399 to make an iPhone your very own. But if you don't use it on AT&T's network, it won't work.

Attempts to hack the iPhone to make it work with other carriers' networks resulted in Apple releasing software that crippled unlocked phones.

The reason for this is obvious: Wireless companies and cellphone manufacturers cut deals that allow them to share revenue. Wireless companies say they need termination fees and locking software because they subsidize much of the handset costs for customers.

In fact, few really know how much a cellphone costs -- there's virtually no retail market for the things. In the case of the iPhone, AT&T is not known to be subsidizing sales, yet the usual fees and restrictions apply.

If the lawsuit against T-Mobile accomplishes nothing else, the light it sheds on this practice will hopefully spur calls from consumers for change (and perhaps legislation to bring such change about).

I asked Torres, whose locked cellphone is now a kid's toy, whether current policies favor customers in any way. He laughed.

"They favor the company," Torres replied.

All anyone is looking for is a level playing field.

david.lazarus@latimes.com

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