Two months ago President Obama signed the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, making it legal for consumers to unlock their phones and therefore easier for them to switch carriers. The President said, “The bill Congress passed today is another step toward giving ordinary Americans more flexibility and choice, so that they can find a cell phone carrier that meets their needs and their budget.” This essentially reverses a ruling by the Library of Congress back in January of 2013 which made cell phone unlocking illegal and punishable by a $500,000 fine and up to five years in prison. The White House called the legality of cell phone unlocking “common sense, good for competition and innovation, and essential to consumers.”
More recently, the launch of iPhone 6 caused confusion among consumers about what unlocking actually means. USA Today wrote an article titled, “How to buy an unlocked iPhone 6,” which explains the different options available to consumers who want to use their phones on different carrier networks. Reporter Rob Pegoraro wrote, “If this seems confusing: Yes, it is. Even after the wireless industry’s recent moves towards slightly more generous unlocking policies, it’s still easy to get lost.”
Let’s take a deeper look into unlocking—the benefits and the risks—and clear up the confusion.
First, there are some clear benefits to unlocking your cell phone. You can use it as an Internet hotspot or switch to a local carrier when traveling overseas to avoid roaming charges. However, there are serious security implications and potential downsides to consider.
Before we explore the risks, benefits, and strategies however, it’s important to understand the industry terms that are central to this issue. “Unlocking” is often used interchangeably with “jailbreaking” (when referring to an iOS device) or “rooting” (when talking Android), but they are not the same thing (although both can provide greater control for the end-user). Unlocking allows you to use your phone on different carrier networks. In order to unlock a smartphone without carrier permission it must be jailbroken or “rooted” first. Jailbreaking or rooting allows applications not approved by Apple or Google to be downloaded from any source, and removes the security controls which prevent access to data on the device by unauthorized people and applications. For example, if the device becomes jailbroken and a third-party app crashes your iPhone, Apple will likely not support the device. Additionally, jailbreaking and rooting can leave your phone vulnerable to hacking and malicious attacks. One hacker even created an iPhone worm that targets jailbroken phones. And, TechTarget recently reported that the risks to rooted Android devices include network access and data theft.
There are other hidden risks as well. As my colleague Wayne DeCesaris wrote in an article for Forbes last year, while unlocked phones give you the freedom to move between providers, switching to a new carrier might actually be more expensive as a new carrier may result in non-optimized usage rates. In the U.S., if the smartphone is part of an enterprise mobile fleet (as either BYOD or corporate liable) and it becomes unlocked and is used on a different carrier, the usage rates could be exorbitantly higher for voice, SMS, and data.
Unlocking can also interfere with cellphone settings. The phone warranty could be voided or may need to be extended past the contract expiration, and features that were previously enabled might not function on a different carrier. Depending on whether your company has a corporate-liable or BYOD policy, there are different ways of making the most of unlocked phones to experience the benefits without the risks.
Corporate Liable – In order for enterprises with corporate-liable smartphones to optimize mobile connected estate spending, they should repurpose the device among employees. If the device is a single-band smartphone, they should switch service plans among the respective radio frequency carriers upon contract completion. If it is a newer smartphone with a dual-band radio frequency (CDMA and GSM), the optimization options expand among U.S. carriers.
BYOD – In a BYOD environment where the employee owns the smartphone, once the service contract has ended and the device is considered paid for, the employee could switch to a lower cost plan if offered by their company, leveraging device volume, to encourage adoption. The assumption in this case is that for a CDMA phone, it is at least dual-band to operate on both CDMA and GSM networks. If it is single-band, for either CDMA or GSM, an unlocked device can only switch among network operators of the same radio frequency.
If the employee is receiving a stipend and the company does not provide service plan options for individual-liable smartphones, the organization should provide guidelines for approved service plans to optimize mobile spend across its connected estate.
Organizations need a mobile strategy that monitors and enforces device compliance changes beyond basic configuration. Because most U.S. operators will unlock the consumer’s device upon request, if the contract is paid, firms can monitor usage via Enterprise Mobility Management (EMM) solutions. This allows the organization to look at usage thresholds and take proactive action based on near real-time analytics via alerts provided to both the employee and to either IT staff or managed service mobility engineers who are monitoring and enforcing usage requirements.
While unlocking is being touted as a huge win for consumers, it can cause more trouble than it’s worth if you don’t understand the potential security and cost implications. By utilizing an EMM solution, organizations can ensure that they have visibility into employees’ mobile device usage and choose the right options when switching carrier plans.
For more information on protecting yourself from security risks, check out our whitepaper Locking Down the Risks from Unlocked Devices.