Currently, Verizon Communications Inc. and Sprint Nextel Corp. block phones that are reported stolen from being reactivated. AT&T Inc. and Deutsche Telekom AG's T-Mobile USA don't. All four have agreed to be part of the new database.
"New technologies create new risks," said Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, which negotiated the database proposal. "We wanted to find a way to reduce the value of stolen smartphones."
Cellphone theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in the U.S., law-enforcement officials nationwide say. The deal between the FCC and the wireless carriers is partly the result of pressure from frustrated police chiefs. The Major Cities Chiefs Association, an affiliation of 70 police chiefs from large cities across the U.S. and Canada, published a resolution in February calling on the FCC to require telecom companies to implement technology to disable stolen devices.
Officials from AT&T and T-Mobile said the carriers are working on technologies to block reuse of stolen phones on their networks. "We are working toward an industrywide solution to address the complexity of blocking stolen devices from being activated on ours or another network with a new SIM card," T-Mobile said in a statement. "This is not a simple problem to solve."
According to an FCC official, the SIM-card problem will likely be solved by the carriers' making an additional check to ensure that the devices themselves are authorized to work on the network, not just the SIM card.
A Sprint official voiced support for the national database plan. An official from Verizon declined to comment late Monday.