Regulator proposes ban on mobile firms selling ‘locked’ phones

Edmund Heaphy
Finance and news reporter
Switching mobile provider can be really frustrating, regulator Ofcom said on Tuesday. Photo: Getty

Communications regulator Ofcom on Tuesday said that it was proposing to introduce a ban on mobile companies selling “locked” mobile phones to customers.

Operators such as BT, Tesco Mobile, and Vodafone still sell mobile phones that cannot be used on other phone networks unless customers pay a fee to unlock them, Ofcom said.

The regulator said that nearly half of customers who try to unlock their device find it “difficult”, while around a third of customers who decided against switching to a different mobile network were put off by the fee.

“Switching mobile provider can be really frustrating,” said Lindsey Fussell, Ofcom's consumer group director, on Tuesday.

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“By freeing mobile users from locked handsets, our plans would save people time, effort and money — and help them unlock a better deal.”

Explaining the difficulties that customers face under the current system, Ofcom said that some customers may experience a long delay getting the code from firms to unlock their devices, they may be given a code that does not work, or could end up losing service if they try to switch without realising that their phone is actually locked to one network.

“So we are proposing to ban mobile companies from selling locked phones, allowing people to move to a different network with their existing handset, hassle-free,” Ofcom said.

Currently, O2, Sky, Three, and Virgin all choose to sell unlocked devices to their customers — meaning they would not be impacted by the change.

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The regulator also announced on Tuesday that it was planning to make it easier for customers to switch between different broadband networks, in a move that would reflect European Union rules introduced under the European Electronic Communications Code.

While Ofcom acknowledged that it is “simple” to switch between some broadband providers, it was not easy for customers to move to providers like CityFibre, Gigaclear, Hyperoptic, or Virgin Media, it said.

“These customers need to contact both their existing and new provider to co-ordinate the switch and make sure there is no gap between the old service ending and the new one starting.”

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