If AT&T can unlock iPhones at Tim Cook's request, why can't they do it simply when it's the right thing to do?

If AT&T can unlock iPhones at Tim Cook's request, why can't they do it simply when it's the right thing to do?

A while back, after being frustrated he couldn't unlock his off-contract AT&T iPhone to use outside the US, a gentlemen wrote Apple CEO Tim Cook to express his frustration, and Cook's officer arranged for AT&T to provide him with an unlock. It seems that wasn't a one of, as 9to5Mac reports it's since happened several more times.

We have received upwards of six emails from readers confirming an email sent to [Apple CEO Tim Cook]’s office resulted in a response from AT&T Partnership Operations informing them the carrier would make an exception to unlock their devices. Like the original reader, our tipsters have not received responses directly from Cook, but they did receive an email with instructions to tether their iPhone to iTunes to complete the unlock.

Official unlocks work via IMEI number -- the carrier enters the iPhone's EMEI number into Apple's database and the next time iTunes detects to the device, it connects to Apple, verifies the eligibility, and carries out the unlock. International carriers have been doing this, for free or for a fee, for years. AT&T hasn't.

So the question becomes, if these stories are accurate, and if AT&T is capable of doing unlocks when Tim Cook's office requests it, why can't they simply have an official policy? Why can't they just do it because, when you're off contract, it's the right thing to do?

An unlocked AT&T iPhone can't be used on Verizon or Sprint, and can only be used on T-Mobile 2G EDGE is most places, so any paranoia about losing customers could be more than offset by the goodwill it would engender from those very customers. And if a customer really is leaving for another country, wouldn't they be better off leaving with a great impression of AT&T, than bad feelings and a paperweight for a phone?

Source: 9to5Mac

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Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, Review, Vector, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

If AT&T can unlock iPhones at Tim Cook's request, why can't they do it simply when it's the right thing to do?

25 Comments

Actually...an AT&T iPhone 4S unlocked can indeed run on Verizon's and Sprint's 3G networks..you just need an activate micro sim.

Yes, it can run, due to the hardware being the same, but it won't, because your ESN's not registered on their network.
And you got it backwards. You need a microSIM for at&t, not the other way around.

Yes, you CAN get Verizon or Sprint MicroSims, but they wouldn't work on their network in the US because they don't use SIM's for service. The Verizon Micro (which would work on an LTE phone) is only in the iPhone to work for world roaming. Same with Sprint.

Why? Really? You wanna know why AT&T won't do something. Good luck with getting an answer to that. If you do, please have them also answer:

  1. Why does throttling happen when no indication was given when the service rolled out that this would happen?
  2. If I have a 2GB limit, why can't I use that 2GB however I want, i.e. tethering.
  3. Why can't data rollover?

I'm one of those people, not a threat to AT&T to crossover to another carrier, but with a useless AT&T iPhone, a bought of contract and a lot of disappointment. Guess which carrier I recommend to friends going to the US... Anything but AT&T.
Basterds

I'm all for unlocking phones because it's the "right thing" to do (for me). But why should AT&T be compelled to do it when they have a perfectly valid business model via roaming that nets them a profit off a subsidized phone?

International Voice and data roaming are expensive as you get not only hit with the rates from AT&T (expensive but reasonable) but you also get the voice and data charges from the local carrier including any taxes (more expensive!). These added charges is what makes it worthwhile to use an unlocked iPhone. If you travel quite often then buy an unlocked iPhone from Apple. The extra $400 will be paid in less than 6 months considering the charges from AT&T. Also you benefit for not having a contract with AT&T. Downside is that you will need to reroute your US phone to the new number abroad so you can receive calls made to the former.

There is a rule (I think from the FCC), that all phones must be unlocked by request when off-contract, however, the rule allows the carrier one exception. (Thank you lobbyists.) AT&T chose the iPhone to be that exception.
The answer as to why is that AT&T makes more money keeping the AT&T iPhone locked to AT&T. From the POV of AT&T and it's stockholders, that is the right thing.
As for good will, try not to think from the standpoint of a Apple Fan or a computer geek or an iMore reader, but from that of your Mom (or insert appropriate "mundane" here). The only thing Mom thinks about unlocking is a door. Unlocking a phone, any phone, affects virtually no-one... and certainly not AT&T's bread-and-butter clientele.
The fallout affects only those who don't matter (unfortunately, that's us, and we'll just jailbreak instead).

I think it's absurd that AT&T won't unlock phones for travelers. I travel internationally a couple of times a year and I would love to be able to legally unlock my phone for use abroad. I'd be willing to pay AT&T a small fee for this service.

Well technically if AT&T didn't exist, then the US Tourist Industry would go bust.
Their the only network in your country that international travellers can actually roam on and get 3G.

at&t will do it if you go to the right person and right time you go to one of those cool people who don't care they will do it that's what i did, or keep on trying in other stores some body will finally budge

AT&T unlocked my other phones without any fuss, so I could use a local SIM card while traveling abroad. It's just the iPhone they won't unlock. It has nothing to do with any business model. It's just the iPhone. That's why I left them.

The reason is AT&T does not respect their customers. I had the original iPhone (locked obviously), and when I went overseas, it was just an iPod touch to me. I went overseas regularly while I was in the military so it's not something regular to me to be out of my home country. When I turned off airplane mode in these other countries, I got a nice automated text message from AT&T letting me know that data would cost $19.99 per megabyte. Who knows what the call rates were, but I imagine they were equally horrendous. This was one of the reasons I left AT&T 3 years ago.
So the bottom line is they obviously want to force you to use their terrible roaming rates so they get more profit instead of making the customer happy by letting them choose what to use overseas. This doesn't really affect most of their customers, so it's never really brought up. I'm glad publications like iMore and 9to5mac are bringing attention to this though.

AT&T can unlock, but they don't want to do it because they lose the ridiculous roaming revenue. Apple can unlock, but they will not unlock and will not let AT&T to unlock because Apple wants to keep selling those unlocked phones at full price/profit margins. Keeping those phones locked keeps both AT&T and Apple happy and fill their pockets.

Apple unlocking a locked phone is a serious breach of the contract between Apple and the network.

Here in Brazil cellphones are sold unlocked. Even iPhones.
It's the law.
On the other hand, you wouldn't believe the prices.

Ofcom (UK) requires that networks allow all their phones to be unlocked at the end of a contract, hence why all iPhones in the UK can be unlocked by all networks, either for free or a small fee (£10-£15)

So get rid of your stupid Iphones and get a WP7. AT&T unlocked my Samsung Focus WP7 phone for me. I bought the phone in February 2011(subsidized) and they gave me the unlock code in May 2011. No problemo :)
I think it was part of the agreement with Apple. AT&T will even give out the unlock codes on non IPhones that are still under contract.