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Ofcom plans to ban sale of ‘locked’ mobile phones by networks

New proposals have been made to help customers switch networks and reduce their bills

Ofcom has laid out new proposals to prevent mobile operators from selling ‘locked’ phones to customers as the regulator aims to make switching networks easier.

O2, Sky, Three and Vodafone already all sell their mobile phones unlocked but some networks do not.

BT/EE, Tesco Mobile and Virgin currently sell mobiles that can’t be used on other networks unless they are unlocked, which can sometimes come with a fee of around £10. It makes the switching process more complicated, with Ofcom research showing that nearly a third of consumers are put off switching network due to the cost and complexity of unlocking a phone. Delays, codes not working and loss of service are all cited as reasons consumers find the process to complex.

Whilst some independent mobile retailers sell their phones on pay monthly contracts already unlocked, not every phone is always available unlocked, and with some networks selling locked phones on their own site, the whole area can be confusing.

The plan from Ofcom follows the successful launch of Text To Switch earlier in July, which lets customers switch networks by sending a text message rather than having to phone their current provider.

Ofcom consumer group director Lindsey Fussell said: “Switching mobile provider can be really frustrating. By freeing mobile users from locked handsets, our plans would save people time, effort and money – and help them unlock a better deal.”

Support from the networks

Three supports the proposals from Ofcom: “We don’t believe that there should be any barriers to switching mobile provider. That’s why we have supplied all our handsets unlocked at the point of sale since 2014.

“We welcome Ofcom’s preferred proposal to ensure that all operators sell unlocked handsets, ending a practice that three quarters of consumers find unfair. However, there is no technical reason for a 12-month implementation period and urge them to bring their timetable forward, so that consumers can benefit from simpler switching in 2020.”

O2 has also welcomed Ofcom’s plans: “At O2 we always support fairness for customers. We welcome Ofcom’s plan on handset unlocking and are pleased that the regulator recognises we’re ahead of the curve on this,” said the operator in a statement.

While a Vodafone spokesperson has said: “We have not charged consumers to unlock their phones for the last couple of years. We support any measure which will benefit customers, but need to ensure the continual protection of a customer’s device if it falls into the wrong hands. We are working through the details of Ofcom’s new proposals.”

However EE has said in a statement that it locks new mobile phones in order to help beat fraud.

“We lock new smartphones to protect our customers and make it harder for criminals to commit fraud. We don’t charge our customers to unlock their phones at the end of contracts and automatically unlock wherever possible,” said an EE spokesperson.

“We’re already working to make it easier for customers to unlock their devices and switch providers, and we’re working closely with Ofcom through this consultation to improve the experience for our customers while protecting against fraud.”

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