AT&T is holding my iPhone hostage and Obama doesn’t care: why the FCC must act on locked phones

I lost phone service 4 days ago because AT&T(s t) decided to vandalize my property — my iPhone(s aapl) — and, despite earlier assurances, it looks like the White House has no intention of doing anything about the policies that let the company get away with it.

This is a story of a personal problem, but I’m sharing it because it could befall any one of you, and because it illustrates a deep flaw in the law: one that permits phone carriers to control devices they don’t even own.

Allow me to explain: last week, I signed up for a T-Mobile promotion that promised cheaper rates for my iPhone 4, which I own free and clear. On Friday, I inserted a new SIM card to join the new network and this is what I’ve seen ever since:

no service iPhone

The inconvenience, as you can imagine, has been extraordinary. It’s not just the loss of maps and email on the go; there’s also a growing number of people in my personal and professional life who are annoyed that I no longer make phone calls.

This might be tolerable if I was somehow at fault. Instead, T-Mobile(s tmus) screwed up by repeatedly assuring me that the transition would be seamless. I can live with this simple incompetence — especially as the company promised to knock $50 off my next phone bill. What’s deeply enraging is the behavior of AT&T(s t), which is keeping my phone locked simply because it can. (To be clear, other phone carriers engage in similar locking practices).

AT&T might have had a justification — a weak one — in the past since it gave me a subsidized iPhone in return for a two year contract. But that contract ended months ago. The phone is now entirely my property and AT&T should have no right to tamper with it — anymore than a car dealer can lock the ignition of a vehicle that someone has paid for.

So what is AT&T doing about it? A supervisor (who refused to give me his ID number) told me that people at AT&T no longer accept unlock requests, and directed me to a website. I went to that website and my “status” is just the same now as when I entered the request days ago:

at&T device lock screenshot

I have no idea when this ordeal will end, especially as AT&T’s service and public relations team have basically told me to jump in the lake. I walked into an AT&T store where an employee informed me that “unlocking is easy” but that the company won’t do it. The website says the unlock process can take 5 days, but who knows? It’s already been four and I haven’t received even an email update.

As for AT&T, recall this is a company that uses public airwaves to make over $125 billion a year. The White House, which claims to be consumer-friendly, should be all over the phone locking issue and, for a while, it was. But new trade documents just published by WikiLeaks reveal that: “while the White House was publicly proclaiming its support of cellphone unlocking, it was secretly negotiating a treaty that would ban it.” So much for that.

All this makes for an irrational consumer nightmare that may or may not be related to the “Mystery of the iPhones that won’t unlock” described in the Wall Street Journal.

If there’s any hope, it lies with the FCC, an independent agency that can act on its own. Tom Wheeler, the new head of the FCC, recently told my colleague, Kevin Fitchard, that he wants to force carriers to notify customers that their phones are eligible for unshackling — or automatically unlock them. Let’s hope he follows through. In the meantime, you can reach me by email.

This story has been updated to note that other carriers engage in similar locking practices.