Mobile Networks Can No Longer Sell Locked Phones

New UK rule comes into effect in 2021

It’s been announced that mobile phone networks in the UK are to be banned from selling locked phones from December 2021. The new regulations, which come from Ofcom (the folk that regulate the mobile industry), follow similar rules implemented by the EU in 2018, though the regulator has clarified that they were already looking into changing the UK’s regulations on locked phones before the EU announced such a rule. Let’s take a look at what the new law is, and most importantly what it means for us consumers across the UK.

What’s the new rule?

By December 2021, phone networks will be banned from selling locked handsets. When a phone is ‘locked’, it means that users can’t simply switch to another network; instead, they will have to potentially pay around £10 to have the phone unlocked (sometimes it’s free), a process which can often be fraught with technical issues and means that consumers could lose service while making the transition.  Never mind the wasted time calling the network’s call centre or filling in online forms.

Mobile networks originally claimed that locking handsets helps to deter theft and fraud, but it’s no longer clear whether this is really the case. Instead, the primary purpose of locking a handset seems to be to deter consumers from switching to a different network where better deals and prices might be available; it also unfairly impacts less tech-savvy consumers who aren’t familiar with unlocking phone handsets and may be more likely to stick simply out of convenience.

A number of networks have already been selling unlocked phones for some time, including O2, Sky, Three, and Virgin, but providers like EE/BT and Vodafone will soon have to follow suit and drop locked phone options by the end of next year.

What does this mean for consumers?

It’s great news for consumers. Locked phones prevent consumers from switching network without going through the costly and sometimes difficult process of unlocking a phone, which many customers don’t realise they have to do to swap networks when they want to keep their existing phone. The new rules will mean more choice for consumers, who will more easily be able to change network when better deals are available elsewhere, and won’t feel locked into a particular network.

Why have these changes been implemented?

The new rule surrounding locked phones is one of several new measures that Ofcom is introducing over the coming years in response to a consultation on broadband and mobile communications. Other measures which will be introduced by 2022 include a requirement that customers are shown a clear summary of a phone contract before signing up, and safeguards which will give consumers more rights to leave a contract if changes are made to deals that weren’t made clear before the contract was signed. Ofcom also intends to make it easier to switch broadband providers by 2022.

These changes are part of a wider set of rules intended to give more rights and securities to consumers in what is a rapidly changing environment. Mobile technology and broadband is still, legally speaking, a very new field, and as the market changes it’s important for regulators to ensure that consumer rights are protected.

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