KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Wireless subscribers of Sprint Nextel Corp. may no longer have to buy a new phone if they jump to a new carrier.
As part of a proposed class-action settlement, the Reston, Va.-based provider, with operational headquarters in Overland Park, Kan., has agreed to provide departing Sprint PCS customers with the code necessary to unlock their phones' software.
That would allow the phones to operate on any network using code division multiple access technology, or CDMA. Competitors using that technology include Verizon Wireless and Alltel Corp.
The codes won't work for Sprint's Nextel-branded phones, which use iDEN technology, and don't allow switching to AT&T or T-Mobile, which use global system for mobile communication, or GSM, technology.
Sprint made the offer as part of the proposed settlement of a California class-action lawsuit, filed last year, accusing the company of anticompetitive practices. The plaintiffs claimed the software "lock" forced anyone wanting to switch carriers to buy a new phone, throwing up a barrier to competition.
On Oct. 2, an Alameda County Superior Court judge tentatively approved the settlement. It covers customers who bought a Sprint phone between Aug. 28, 1999, and July 16, 2007.
A final approval hearing hasn't yet been scheduled, said Sprint Nextel spokesman Matt Sullivan.
"We believe this settlement is fair and reasonable," Sullivan said, adding that the company denies wrongdoing and settled the suit "so we can continue to focus on our business."
A similar lawsuit filed in Palm Beach County, Fla., is covered by the proposed settlement.
Sprint doesn't expect to pay any financial damages as part of the settlement, other than possible legal fees, Sullivan said.
Sprint said it will share the unlocking code with all current and former subscribers once their phones are deactivated and their bills are paid. The company also will add information about the locking software and how to obtain the unlocking codes in the list of terms and conditions of service given to new customers, and instruct its customer service representatives on how to connect a non-Sprint phone to the Sprint network.
T-Mobile faces a similar class-action lawsuit in California. Users of the iPhone, which is locked to the AT&T network, filed two separate lawsuits last week against the carrier and Apple Inc., claiming its use restrictions and a software upgrade that disables unlocked iPhones constituted unfair business practices.
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