More choice for cellphone users no guarantee consumers save

If Congress acts to make it legal to unlock cellphones for use on any network, it's likely the cost of cellphone service plans will be restructured.

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An online petition with 114,000 signatures calling for making it legal to unlock cellphones for use on any network grabbed the attention of Congress last week. These 114,000 people — likely cellphone users — want to be able to unlock the codes in cellphones and tablets so they can switch the device to another company’s network.

Several lawmakers, including Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore, have introduced or expect to introduce legislation to essentially override the copyright protection of codes for mobile devices.

This approach is expected to give consumers, as Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said, “the choice and freedom that we have all come to expect in the digital era.”

Something else we have come to expect in the digital era is rapid changes in technology and high-tech companies to be a step (or more, much more) ahead of government and its regulations.

Given that, it’s far from a sure thing that consumers will ultimately benefit from this “choice and freedom.”

As the old idiom goes, Be careful what you wish for, you just might receive it.

The cost of buying new cellphones could go up if the phones sold by one service provider can be used with a competitor’s network.

Currently, most cellphone service companies provide phones to their customers for free or at a substantially reduced price. For example, the latest iPhone is available to those who sign a network service contract (usually a year or two) for $199. But it can also be purchased for $649 from Apple with no contract and unlocked.

Consumers get the $449 price break because service providers — Verizon or Sprint, for example — know the company will make back the cost of the phone and more over time. Figured into the calculations is the understanding a certain number of people will continue to use that cellphone once their contract expires.

If, however, it becomes routine for customers to shop for a better network deal using their old phones in an effort to save money, the networks could raise the initial price of the phones or mandate much longer contracts.

The only thing certain is nobody needs to worry about network service providers losing a dime.

Still, it is possible some consumers will benefit if cellphones can be used on various networks.

Perhaps the 114,000 folks who signed the online petition and those who are skilled at illegally unlocking phones under current copyright laws — although, some of those people might fit in both catergories — will be financial winners if Congress acts.

But what about the rest of us, the millions and millions of cellphone users across the country?

Well, we all will find out when the network providers decide how to respond to changes in the law.

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