PhotoPresident Obama thinks you should be able to use your cellphone on any carrier's network. This sounds pretty simple and straightforward but it has huge implications for consumers and cellphone carriers.

It wasn't, after all, all that long ago that the only device you could hook up to your telephone line was one the telephone company installed and maintained.

It seems hard to believe now but back in, say, 1975, you couldn't just go to Office Depot, buy a fax machine and plug it into your phone line. In fact, there weren't any fax machines to speak of.

The wireless carriers -- Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, etc. -- have been lobbying heavily against any change that breaks their stranglehold on the smartphones, tablets and other devices that run on today's cell networks. They note that their phones can now be unlocked under certain circumstances, although critics say the process is unwieldy. 

Freedom now

What's perhaps truly amazing is that the Obama Administration's change of heart is at least partly in response to a "Make Unlocking Cell Phones Legal" petition drive that gathered more than 114,300 digital signatures.

Verizon Wireless March 5, 2013, 3:48 p.m.
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The drive was organized after the Library of Congress, which has authority over certain copyright issues, banned the practice of "cracking" cellphones and switching them to another network. The cellphone companies had argued that the practice violated copyright restrictions on their software and the Library of Congress agreed.

But the hackers who would like to have control of their property -- to wit, their phones -- took it to the street, their petition drive being the shot heard 'round the world by those who think consumers should be able to use their devices on any network and with any software they choose.

This is also an issue that is bubbling along beneath the surface in the laptop, tablet and desktop world. Certain manufacturers have been making it difficult bordering on impossible to run their computers on anything but Windows. Apple, of course, has always been a proprietary system.

But a large and growing number of gearheads, artists, creative types and entrepreneurs prefer to run Linux-based Open Source software, not so much because it is freely shared but because, well, it just runs better, is more secure and can be easily customized.

Sugar Daddy phones

There is, however, one big hitch in the Open Source movement when it comes to cell phones -- namely, money.

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When you walk into a Verizon, AT&T or Sprint store and plop down $200 for a new smartphone, you're also signing a two- or three-year contract to buy wireless service, in exchange for which the carrier steeply discounts the purchase price.

That $200 HTC, Samsung or Motorola that's buzzing happily in your pocket? It costs $500 or $600 without a service contract.

Freedom, as they say, is not free.

In theory, of course, if you buy your own phone outright, you should be able to sign up for wireless service at a discounted rate so that over time, you would pay about the same total amount over a two- or three-year period, maybe even a bit less.

In time, market forces will probably make that happen, especially as a more open marketplace encourages new carriers to get into the game. After all, if a carrier didn't have to have a nationwide network of stores to sell devices and didn't have to spend millions on inventory, advertising and marketing, it would be a much simpler business.

None of this will happen tomorrow, of course. Obama can't press a magic button that releases everyone from their cellphone contract and in its statement, the White House noted that consumers should honor their existing contracts but made clear which side of the fence it's landing on. 

Common sense

"Consumers should be able to unlock their cellphones without risking criminal or other penalties," said R. David Edelman, an Obama administration adviser on Internet and privacy issues. He said it's just plain "common sense" and "crucial for protecting consumer choice."

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While nothing concrete will happen immediately, by throwing its weight behind unlocking cell phones, the White House is starting the process of changing public policy. It's always a messy process but it does enable lobbyists to put their children through colleges and it keeps the Audi and Lexus dealers in business, so there must be something good about it.

Sometimes it's seemingly abstract issues like this that wind up being what a presidency is remembered for.

Jimmy Carter deregulated the airlines. AT&T was broken up on Ronald Reagan's watch. Bill Clinton made it easier to get a mortgage. Oops, maybe we'd better stop there.  

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