In the 1990s, it was common to buy a mobile phone with a network’s logo emblazoned across the chassis.
Handsets were often exclusive to a particular network, while the network operators themselves were reluctant to let customers switch to rival service providers.
Inserting a SIM card from another network would result in the phone being unable to connect – effectively rendering it useless.
As a result, you tended to buy a phone and remain with the same network until it was time for a new handset.
And for millions of UK consumers, this is still the case.
Companies like BT/EE and Vodafone often make it difficult for their customers to use handsets on other networks.
The only workaround is to unlock the phone by acquiring a code from the network operator.
This is a fiddly process, though independent mobile phone shops will gladly perform it in exchange for a fee.
It would be much easier if the UK’s phone network giants simply acknowledged the right of SIM-only consumers to move to a different network whenever they want.
And it seems the industry regulator agrees.
Reaching for the Of’ switch
Ofcom has decided to call time on this issue by proposing a ban on locked phones.
This would standardise the customer experience throughout the sector – currently, people with unlocked hardware are able to change network simply by sending a free text message.
The regulator claims the challenges posed by locked handsets mean over a third of people who’d like to change networks are put off from doing so.
It also reports that almost half the people who push ahead will encounter problems, such as:
- A protracted delay in receiving the unlock code.
- An incorrect code being provided.
- A loss of service while attempting to transfer networks.
What does this mean for me?
As a consumer, Ofcom’s proposed ban on locked phones would enable people to switch networks more easily.
It should also eliminate the phenomenon of people replacing a handset purely to leave a network they don’t like.
Growing awareness of the environmental impact of smartphone manufacture and disposal might persuade people to keep their current phone longer if they’re able to change provider.
It’s often possible to find a cheaper SIM-only deal on rival networks, which is an easy way to reduce monthly bills.
There are financial benefits when selling an unlocked phone, too, since the handset will be worth more if anyone can buy and use it.
Regular travellers should note that an unlocked smartphone liberates you from having to accept your existing provider’s international call and data costs.
A ban on locked phones would mean any handset could be fitted with a SIM bought while abroad.
As a result, calls and data would be charged at that provider’s domestic rates, rather than your existing provider’s international roaming ones.