Vanderbilt Law Review

First Page



On August 24, 2007, less than two months after its initial release for sale, the Apple iPhone was unlocked, untethering the phones from the AT&T cellular network. Because AT&T has exclusive rights to provide coverage for the iPhone until the year 2010, hackers and computer enthusiasts worked feverishly to be the first to use the iPhone on a network other than AT&T. Although the practice of cell phone unlocking has been occurring for years, the tremendous public interest surrounding the launch of the iPhone focused attention on the issue like never before.

Wireless carriers can use software locks, hardware locks, or both to disable a handset from being used on any network except the one for which it was purchased. Most handset makers, such as Motorola and Nokia, manufacture almost identical versions of their phones for different networks, making, for example, a new T-Mobile customer purchase a different version of the same phone he used on the AT&T network. As a result, most customers choose phones based on the network they plan to use. The practice of linking a specific cell phone handset to a particular network did not, of course, originate with Apple and AT&T. T-Mobile, Verizon, and Sprint also lock handsets to prevent them from working on competitors' networks. A network provider may sometimes unlock a customer's handset so that the customer can take the phone overseas to use on a foreign network, but generally, providers operate according to a business model that subsidizes expensive handsets and locks customers into multi-year contractual commitments. The iPhone, for instance, will not appear on networks other than AT&T, nor will AT&T unlock it for use overseas. If consumers want iPhones, they must use the AT&T network and be willing to use locked phones, with all their inherent limitations.