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The unlocking service, which allows a phone to be used on a different carrier's network, will be available at all Telus stores for customers who have SIM-based phones from the company. ((Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press))

Telus will begin unlocking its SIM-card based wireless devices for a $50 fee starting Feb. 15.

The unlocking service, which allows the phone to be used on a different carrier's network, will be available at all Telus stores for existing customers, company spokeswoman Anne-Julie Gratton confirmed on Monday morning.

That means it will be offered on Telus phones using HSPA technology and also the company's Mike brand phones. However, it will not be immediately offered for iPhones.

To be eligible for the service, customers must:

  • Be on a monthly plan.
  • Have a device that is active and has been on the Telus network for at least 90 days.

Phones under Telus's Koodo brand are already available for unlocking.

LOCKED UP

Traditionally, most mobile devices in Canada have been sold programmed with a digital lock that prevents them from being used with a different carrier.

Until recently, Canadian customers had only had three main providers — Bell, Rogers and Telus — to choose from, and for a long time Bell and Telus used a different technology from Rogers, making it unlikely a customer could switch providers and still use the same phone.

However, Bell and Telus began using technology in 2009 that is largely similar to Rogers's, so most newer phones will work on all three networks.

In addition, new carriers — Wind Mobile and Mobilicity — use the same frequencies as each other and can support the same phones.

Gratton said the move is Telus's latest attempt to improve the "customer experience" and is targeted at customers who want to use their phones on long overseas trips or customers who upgrade their phones and want to sell or give away their old phones.

The unlocking will be available to eligible customers regardless of whether they are contracts or have subsidized phones — those sold to customers at a discount when they sign contracts with Telus. The unlocking service will not affect contracts.

Rogers and Fido began providing handset unlocking for $50 on Dec. 14, but it's only available to customers who have paid the unsubsidized purchase price for the phone or have finished their contract. Bell says it has offered unlocking for $75 since 2009 to customers who have been with the company for at least 30 days. However, the service doesn't currently apply to the iPhone due to an agreement with Apple. Both Telus and Bell say they are working with Apple to make the service available in the future.

This has led to pressure from consumers and their advocates to push for phones to be available unlocked so that providers can be switched without having to buy a new phone, forcing wireless providers to compete more with one another.

Mel Fruitman, spokesman for the Consumers' Association of Canada, said Telus's move is a step in the right direction.

"How good it is depends on the specifics of the case, unfortunately," he said.

For example, it would be a good deal if the phone is bought at a price subsidized by the carrier, and consumers don't get charged a large connection fee when they move to another carrier, he said.

Gratton said Telus accepts customers who come with unlocked handsets but can't guarantee the phone will work properly with its network. Such customers pay the same $35 account setup fee as other Telus customers.

Rogers and Bell similarly charge the same $35 account setup fee for all customers, regardless of whether they come with their own handsets or buy one from Rogers or Bell.

Consumers can get their devices unlocked at some wireless retailers and online for far less than $50. However, Gratton said Telus works with manufacturers to guarantee that the device will work properly on the Telus network after it is unlocked.

Private member's bill

Last June, NDP MP Bruce Hyer introduced a private member's bill called the cellphone freedom act that would require wireless providers to:

  • Notify customers whether a phone is locked to work only on their network.
  • Remove the lock free of charge at the end of the customer's service contract.
  • Remove the lock if the customer does not enter into a contract within six months of buying the device up front.

Some manufacturers and wireless device retailers have also started offering their devices unlocked.

Last June, Apple confirmed that customers would be able to buy the iPhone 4 unlocked in Canada. It sells the unlocked 16-gigabyte version for $659. In contrast, a locked version is $160, when sold with a three-year contract from Bell, Rogers or Telus.

Corrections

  • The MP who introduced a private member's bill called the cellphone freedom act was Bruce Hyer, not Bill Hyer as previously reported.
    Feb 07, 2011 12:23 PM ET