Responding to growing political and police pressure, America's Big Four wireless carriers have agreed to create a national database of stolen cellphones.
The database would ensure that phones reported stolen would be blocked from wireless networks belonging to AT&T Mobility, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile USA and Verizon Wireless. It would also cover cellular-connected tablets.
"It's just too easy for a thief to steal a phone and sell it on the black market," Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Julius Genachowski told the New York Times. "This program will make it a lot harder to do that."
Sprint and Verizon Wireless already block stolen phones from receiving cellular service. AT&T and T-Mobile deactivate subscriber identity module (SIM) cards on phones reported stolen, but until now have resisted calls to block the handsets as well, citing issues of convenience, privacy and technology.
Without handset blocking, a stolen AT&T or T-Mobile phone can easily be reactivated using a new SIM card.
Genachowski is expected today (April 10) to join representatives of the Big Four and police officials from Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania to announce the agreement to create the national database.
Similar national databases already exist in dozens of countries overseas, including Germany, where T-Mobile's parent company blocks handsets. Nineteen countries have linked their national databases to an international database that is meant to hinder transport of stolen phones across borders.
But the lack of such a program in the United States may have contributed to increasing rates of cellphone theft. According to an internal New York Police Department memo obtained by the New York Daily News, half of all reported robberies in the city in the first 10 months of 2011 involved cellphones.
Most popular among thieves is the Apple iPhone, which can fetch prices of several hundred dollars on Craigslist or eBay.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., in August 2011 called on AT&T and T-Mobile to create the blacklist that Genachowski will announce today.
"By adopting the latest technology that allows companies to disable phones after they've been stolen, companies like AT&T could reduce cellphone theft dramatically," Schumer said in January.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, an organization of police chiefs from 70 large cities in the U.S. and Canada, in February called on the FCC to force the cellular carriers to disable stolen mobile devices.
The final details have not yet been worked out, but the four major carriers will create their own databases in the next six months. Over the following year, they will link up their databases and encourage smaller regional carriers to join.