CTIA's new voluntary unlocking policies for participating carriers take effect. The promise of the new policies is that any user will be able to have their phone unlocked by their carrier if they meet certain conditions like the phone being fully paid for. Or in the case of prepaid phones, that the phone has been used on the operator's network for a requisite period of time of up to one year.
Sprint, which up to now has had a policy of not unlocking prepaid phones, posted new unlocking policies for its Virgin Mobile prepaid brand today.
Virgin Mobile waited until the next to last day to unveil their prepaid unlocking policy and it's just about as restrictive as the CTIA rules allow. Virgin Mobile will unlock their prepaid phones provided:
- The phone hasn't been reported as lost or stolen or deemed by Virgin Mobile to be ineligible for unlocking.
- The phone has been active on account of the user requesting the unlock for a minimum of 12 months and is currently active on that account.
Virgin claims that they can't unlock any of their other dual-mode CDMA/GSM phones, like the iPhone 4s and 5 or the Samsung Galaxy S5 for domestic GSM use. I believe this is for business rather than technical reasons. That's especially true for iPhone 5 as the Sprint/Virgin Mobile iPhone 5 is the same A1429 model that's sold by Verizon, and the unlocked Verizon iPhone 5 does work on T-Mobile and AT&T for voice, messaging and 3G data. iPhone unlocks are done by Apple through iTunes. I have a hard time believing that Sprint can't request that Apple unlock a Virgin Mobile A1429 iPhone 5 for domestic GSM use.
The Samsung Galaxy S5, like many Sprint Android global phones, was probably specified by Sprint to be shipped by Samsung with custom baseband software that blocks connections to domestic GSM networks. That means it can't be unlocked by simply entering a code like locked GSM phones can. However if Sprint really wanted to I suspect they could, with Samsung's help, OTA update the S5 with a baseband file that allowed it to be used on domestic GSM networks.
For other phones eligible for unlocks Virgin will only provide the MSL code which, is mainly useful for manually programming phones for use on Sprint MVNOs. The good news is that Sprint says that new models of GSM capable prepaid phones that it releases in the future will be fully unlockable.
I think by refusing to unlock hardware capable phones like the iPhone 5, Sprint is likely in violation of at least the spirit of the CTIA unlocking agreement. But I doubt that the CTIA, which is largely funded by the carriers, including Sprint, will do anything to force Sprint to unlock older GSM capable phones.
Related: Updated: Get Your Prepaid Phone Unlocked For Free - US Operator's Prepaid Unlocking Policies