Friday, January 25, 2013

Get locked up for unlocking your phone

Image: Herald-Dispatch
This is a long story. Let me get to the part you might care about so you can read it and go on about your business.

The Librarian of Congress has decreed that unauthorized unlocking of a mobile phone is a criminal offense. Not jailbreaking, mind you; that's still legal. But unlocking the phone to use on another carrier.

It's no longer an issue between you and your carrier. It's now a federal offense. That's authorized because of the part of the Constitution where the Founding Fathers were concerned about AT&T losing your business to Walmart. I'm sure it's in there. Just ask any liberal.

Anyway, this could have impacted me late last year. And that's the long story I'm gonna tell you. If you stick around for it.

I could shorten this up quite a bit and get right to the summary, but no, I'm gonna make you go through what all I went through, why I went through it, and why I might now be a criminal if I go through it again.

It started in the fall when my son mentioned that he wanted an iPhone. So, I said I'd help him out since his birthday was coming up (November).

Then, it developed that his mother (my ex-wife) had an iPhone or two (a 3G and a 3GS) that she wasn't using, and I could buy one from her and give it to him. Now, this was just before the iPhone 5 came out. The 4S was the current phone ($200 with contact, $650 without), the 4 was the discounted model ($100 with contract, $550 without), and the 3GS was the basic model (free with contract, $375-$450 without, depending on carrier). The 3G was fully discontinued.

I was aware of the upcoming iPhone 5 release, and knew the phones would shift, so that the 3GS was discontinued, and the iPhone 4 was the basic/free (with contract) phone. I let my son know that.

Turns out, though, that he was looking at dropping his current carrier (Verizon) and going to Walmart's pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) plan, Straight Talk. It's $45/month for 2GB data usage. Yeah, it says unlimited, but it's not. I can explain why it's really not, and why it's not really false advertising, but that'll just make this already too-long post even longer, and you don't want that.

Anyway, because of his plan to use Straight Talk, the free or discounted-by-contract prices are out the window.

Still, I tell him I'll help him with whatever he wants to do. If the price is large, he'll have to deal with it as a combined birthday-Christmas gift. And he was good with that.

He decided he wanted an iPhone 4. And, in order to use it on Straight Talk, it must be unlocked. (You knew I would get to that, didn't you?)

Apple was selling an unlocked iPhone 4 for $375 (it's now $450), and that was ... well, possible. But, I didn't run right out and buy one. Couple of reasons. I wanted to time delivery of the phone and his birthday as close as possible so that he'd get maximum use of the warranty. There was also the issue of how reliable Straight Talk would be.

You see, his mother had tried Straight Talk on her iPhone (3G, 3GS, both, or something). She wasn't happy with it, because not everything worked like she expected. Straight Talk told her the phone wasn't unlocked. She insisted it was.

All this meant that I'd get the iPhone in early November, set it up for him on Straight Talk, work out any bugs, and get it to him by his birthday a couple of weeks later. That was all well and good.

Then he decided he wanted a 4S. That was $550, unlocked. Yeah, this was definitely birthday and Christmas all rolled into one.

I first bought an iPhone 4S-compatible SIM from Straight Talk, along with a month's service. That was $55. It came rather quickly, so that was nice.

Then, I ordered the iPhone 4S ($550). That came quickly, too.

I found there were some issues with the 4S, iOS 6, and the standard Straight Talk setup. But, since I know how to use Google, I found the instructions on setting up a 4S with iOS 6 on Straight Talk.

Everything worked. Except iMessage. Or part of it.

Turns out that for MMS didn't work. SMS worked, but not MMS. Simply put, MMS is what you use when you send pictures and such in a message (not email, but messaging); SMS is what you use for a text-only message.

My research showed that in order to make MMS work on an iPhone with Straight Talk, you have to edit a text file. So, I bought a utility that would allow me to do that ($30-40, I forget).

Only, that doesn't work on iOS 6. You have to use the SIM swap method. Which means you have to get a T-Mobile or some other non-ATT and non-Straight Talk SIM. So, it's off to T-Mobile.

T-Mobile sold SIM cards at the counter for $15. Only, these were the bigger SIM cards that fit the 3G and 3GS. The iPhone 4 and 4S use the smaller SIM cards. But, the good news is that T-Mobile would sell me a micro SIM card; it comes with the $55 no-contract service.

So, I bought a one-month T-Mobile service just to get the SIM. They set the phone up and everything was working. On T-Mobile's network.

That meant I had to set the phone up again on Straight Talk. Got it all working again, then used the T-Mobile SIM to perform the MMS setup using the SIM-swap method. It's a little complicated, and you can Google it if you want to know all about it. And, unless you're setting up an iPhone on Straight Talk, you really don't want to know about it.

Anyway, all this worked, and my son got his iPhone 4S for his birthday and all is well.

Now, what's that about my being a criminal for unlocking an iPhone?

That's the rest of the story. All that about my son's iPhone is just the setup.

You see, the ex-wife decided to give her iPhone 3GS to my son's girlfriend. (He says she's his fiancé, but until they actually set a date, it's "girlfriend." Sorry, that's the rules.)

Remember the ex had issues with Straight Talk? Yeah, those still existed. So, I was asked to set it up. I got the phone and immediately ran into troubles.

Even though the 3GS phone also had iOS 6, some of the options I saw on the 4S were greyed out or didn't exist. My research showed most of this was because the phone wasn't unlocked.

That's when my son told me more about his mother's (now his girlfriend's) iPhone 3GS. Turns out the ex had bought it on Craig's List. That's the online version of out of the trunk of some guy's car, for those that aren't familiar with Craig's List.

Anyway, I was convinced that the phone was still locked to the carrier, and since the only US iPhone 3GS carrier was AT&T, that meant I needed to march my happy ass up to the AT&T store and see if I could get them to unlock it.

The clerk in the store put me on the phone with customer service, who, after 18 minutes of hold, told me to go to their Website. I broke out my handy little iPad and did just that while the CSR was still on the phone. Turns out you have to provide the previous phone number.

I calmly explained that this was a phone purchased by my ex-wife who lives clear across the state of Georgia from me, and she was giving it to my son's girlfriend, and she bought it from Craig's List, and, no, I had no idea what the original number was.

CSR said go find out and fill out the form and everything will be great.

Ex had no idea what the original number was. Didn't think there was one. I decided not to pursue that line of questioning, figuring somebody done walked out of AT&T with an iPhone that he found he couldn't use and then sold it on Craig's List to some lady from Georgia. I decided to not confirm my suspicions.

I did some checking around, and found that, on eBay, you can purchase an iPhone unlock. Now, the times are variable on this. Sometimes you get a quick response. Sometimes it takes more than a day. I figure there are folks that work for AT&T that, after hours, unlock iPhones on the side. I don't know that, but I wonder.

So, I bought one of those. Cost around $25. There are some cheaper, but I looked at the other customer ratings, and only bought from high rated sellers with lots of ratings. I got a form to fill out, submitted, and waited.

A few hours later, I got my information and the final steps I'd need to complete the unlock. And, it involved using a T-Mobile SIM.

I drove my happy ass over to T-Mobile, figuring I'd buy anther contact-free month of service, they'd set the phone up, and I'd pick up where I left off in the setup. Only, they wouldn't sell me a SIM until I got the phone unlocked. And I couldn't unlock the phone without a SIM (since normal means had failed).


Maybe Best Buy would have a cheap T-Mobile phone that had a SIM. They didn't. But, they did sell standard SIM cards for SIMple Mobile phones. And those are T-Mobile compatible.

Just like Straight Talk is compatible with AT&T, SIMple Mobile is compatible with T-Mobile.

So, I bought a SIMple Mobile SIM ($13) and was able to complete the unlock of the iPhone. I also used the SIM to set up MMS after I completed the Straight Talk setup.

Now, both my son and his girlfriend have working iPhones on Straight Talk. They're happy.

I, as you may have noticed, went outside the AT&T process to unlock the phone.

That means that, according to the Librarian of Congress, if I do this again, I'm a criminal.

James Hadley Billington? Screw you. Seriously. Screw you.

1 comment:

  1. Basil, you're a good Deddy (even if you are a lawbreaker). I'd have told 'em to spend their own money, and not bug me about such things.

    Son would have gotten a stupid looking sweater, and a WalMart gift card for Crimmus/birthday. I've got one of those sons btw...Dec. 29 birthday. He's in Afghanistan now.



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