In a surprise move, AT&T has announced that they will begin unlocking certain qualifying iPhones starting this Sunday. Once unlocked, owners will be able to take their phones to whatever carrier they wish, even ones that don’t officially offer the iPhone. Looking at you, T-Mobile.
Engadget broke the story this afternoon, and has published this statement from telecom giant AT&T:
Beginning Sunday, April 8, we will offer qualifying customers the ability to unlock their AT&T iPhones. The only requirements are that a customer’s account must be in good standing, their device cannot be associated with a current and active term commitment on an AT&T customer account, and they need to have fulfilled their contract term, upgraded under one of our upgrade policies or paid an early termination fee.
For readers curious about why anyone would want to unlock their phone, simply compare the price of an iPhone sold directly by Apple without a contract and one sold with a contract. A new iPhone 4S with a two-year contract through AT&T can cost as low as $199 thanks to subsidies from the carrier. Without a contract, the same phone retails for $649. By allowing their customers to unlock their phone upon the completion of that contract, AT&T is allowing users to keep the phone that they paid for without penalty.
What happens next will be really interesting. It doesn’t seem too likely to me that AT&T will suddenly lose a lot of customers over night; the conditions placed on the deal, along with a lack of knowledge amongst most consumers will probably ensure that the status quo continues. However, if a rival or rivals of AT&T were to start encouraging people to switch, that might change things.
By the way, did you know that T-Mobile has over 1 million iPhone users but doesn’t offer the iPhone? It’s true.