Under President Obama’s direction, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) – a US commerce department – yesterday (Tuesday 17 September) petitioned FCC, the US telecoms regulator, to require wireless carriers to unlock mobile phones, tablets and other devices.

“Americans should be able to use their mobile devices on whatever networks they choose and have their devices unlocked without hassle,” said Lawrence E. Strickling, an NTIA administrator, arguing this will boost operator competition.

Phone unlocking became a hot political issue in the US following a decision by the Library of Congress late last year not to renew an exemption under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that allowed consumers to unlock new mobile phones without carrier permission.

Under the Act, passed 1998, Americans are broadly prohibited from “circumventing” technologies that protect copyrighted works. Yet the DMCA gives the Library of Congress – a research arm of Congress – the authority to grant exemptions, which it did for cellphone unlocking in 2006 and 2010.

When the exemption was not renewed it sparked a popular online petition (over 110,000 signatories) to reverse the decision by the Library of Congress.

The petition eventually won the support of President Obama.

CTIA, a trade group whose members include Verizon Communications, Sprint and T-Mobile US, issued a statement emphasising that US consumers were already benefitting from ample competition and had “transparent and competitive unlocking policies” when considering wireless providers or service plans.

“Further, we trust that all parties interested in this issue will join CTIA in supporting the legislation being advanced by House Judiciary Chairman Goodlatte,” stated CTIA.

The Goodlatte Bill, says CTIA, “aims to alleviate consumer confusion or uncertainty from the 2012 decision of the Librarian of Congress and to prevent the bulk unlocking of handsets and arbitrage of the handset subsidy system, which can harm consumers and facilitate the sale of stolen smartphones”.

Former FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, before resigning earlier this year, said the commission would examine the issue “to see if we can and should enable consumers to use unlocked phones”. He added that the ban on unlocking raised competition and innovation concerns.

Tom Wheeler, President Obama’s nominee to succeed Genachowski, reportedly said during a nomination hearing in June that he supported lifting the ban on device unlocking.

Mignon Clyburn, acting FCC chairwoman, said she supports “policies that enable consumers to lawfully unlock their mobile telephones”, according to a Bloomberg report.