Verizon phone locking is 2018's unwelcome return

Verizon has started the week by making a big announcement, revealing today that it will begin locking phones later on this year. This is somewhat surprising because Verizon has historically offered its phones unlocked from the start, putting it in distinct contrast to the three other big carriers in the US. However, this may not be as big of a change as it seems at first blush, and on the surface, Verizon has at least a somewhat justifable reason for doing so.

In a statement to CNET, Verizon says that it will begin locking phones as a means of preventing theft from its retail stores. Phones will remain locked for a period of time following purchase, but at the moment, Verizon hasn't revealed how long that locked period will last. It also hasn't said if there will be any other requirements – such as paying off your device entirely – before it'll be unlocked.

While Verizon phones are unlocked out of the box, other carriers require that you both pay off your phone and wait a certain amount of time before they'll unlock your phone for use on another network. Verizon says that its unique unlocking policy makes its phones targets for thieves, but it didn't elaborate further on that claim.

Having your phone locked to your carrier for a certain amount of time may not be a problem for some people, but it will be for those who prefer to have the option to jump ship to another carrier at any time or those who travel internationally frequently. One way to get around high international fees from US carriers is to buy a pre-paid SIM card from the country you're visiting and pay domestic rates for service during your trip. Assuming your phone is still SIM-locked to Verizon's network when you take that trip, however, you won't be able to do that.

This new policy also appears to fly in the face of rules laid down by the FCC more than a decade ago. In return for winning an auction for the spectrum that serves as the backbone of its 4G LTE network to this very day, the FCC required that Verizon stop the practice of SIM-locking phones to its network.

Verizon, it would seem, thinks that it can get away with ignoring FCC rules, and the sad thing is that it's probably right. The current FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, has already proven that he's on the side of business with his much-derided campaign to repeal Title II regulations for net neutrality. Beyond that, however, Ajit Pai is part of the old guard over at Verizon, serving as Associate General Counsel for the company between 2001 and 2003. If there was ever a time that the FCC would roll over and let Verizon ignore rules it agreed to follow, it's now.

In the end, this argument that it needs to protect stock by SIM-locking devices feels like a Trojan horse that allows Verizon to skirt the rules, though that doesn't necessarily mean the company isn't worried about theft at all. Phone theft is certainly an issue, but we're not sure that device locking is the most elegant way to deal with it, and it's hard not see Verizon's new policy as effectively hurting consumers just as it promises to help them.