There are no laws or regulations preventing mobile operators from “network locking” phones and other mobile devices to their networks.
That’s the word from Rolf Blom, an attorney at Ellipsis Regulatory Solutions who specialises in South Africa’s telecommunications regulations.
A locked phone can’t be used on a network other than the one it was bought from unless the manufacturer, network, or a “hacker” unlocks the device.
Blom said he was surprised to discover that operators are free to lock phones in South Africa, as he was under the impression number portability regulations prevented it.
However, the handset subsidy regulations from the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa which deal with the issue of network locking were dropped in 2011.
Cell C network locking in Code of Conduct
The enquiry into Icasa’s rules on network locking followed a complaint from a Cell C subscriber over a dual-SIM phone.
The subscriber’s second SIM slot on the device had been locked to the Cell C network, but they were not informed of this before buying the phone.
After looking through Cell C’s terms and conditions, they found the following clause in the network’s Code of Conduct:
Some Cell C handsets may be network locked to the Cell C network. Where this occurs it is because the handset is subsidised by Cell C and a preferential price is offered to those customers to whom the offer is made. Please feel free to enquire from your Service provider, before purchasing any handset, as to whether it is network locked.
Cell C said the last time it network locked phones was in 2013. “The device in question is older than that,” said Cell C.
Good intentions from Icasa, but no follow-through
Blom said the current mobile number portability regulations suggest Icasa’s intention is to dissuade network locking.
Given that the handset subsidy regulations were being formulated around the same time Icasa introduced number portability regulations, the implication was that the regulator would create a framework for the locking of handsets to a certain network.
However, thanks to the withdrawal of the Code of Conduct on sale, lease, rental, or subsidisation of subscriber equipment there does not appear to be an outright prohibition against a mobile network operator doing so.
“It would appear that all attempts to implement a definitive framework were abandoned with Icasa’s withdrawal of the draft handset subsidy regulations,” said Blom.
In the Government Gazette in which Icasa announced it was dropping the regulations, it explained it tried to rework them after they were challenged in court on the basis of “procedural irregularity”.
Icasa said even though legal proceedings were instituted, the regulations were withdrawn when it realised the prospect of success was low.
After reworking the regulations and reopening them for public comment, there were objections to them.
Icasa said at the time the Amendment to the Electronic Communications Act which was set to come from the Department of Communications would strengthen the regulator’s powers to let it regulate subscriber handsets more effectively.
“The regulation making process under review is hereby put on hold till further notice from the Authority,” said Icasa.
Icasa was asked to comment on the issue of network locking in South Africa, but no answers were provided by the time of publication.