In one of the most significant legal rulings in the tech industry this year, a Superior Court judge in California has ruled that the practice of charging consumers a fee for ending their cell phone contract early is illegal and violates state law.
The preliminary, tentative judgment orders Sprint Nextel to pay customers $18.2 million in reimbursements and, more importantly, orders Sprint to stop trying to collect another $54.7 million from California customers (some 2 million customers total) who have canceled their contracts but refused or failed to pay the termination fee.
While an appeal is inevitable, the ruling could have massive fallout throughout the industry. Without the threat of levying early termination fees, the cellular carriers lose the power that’s enabled them to lock customers into contracts for multiple years at a time. And while those contracts can be heinously long, they also let the carriers offer cell phone hardware at reduced (subsidized) prices. AT&T’s two-year contract is the only reason the iPhone 3G costs $199. If subsidies vanish, what happens to hardware lock-in? Could an era of expensive, but unlocked, hardware be just around the corner? It’s highly probable.
Read the full story in YAHOO Tech here.