US carriers join forces on stolen phones database, play catch up to rest of world

Keeping track of stolen phones has become increasingly important as more users have expensive smartphones, according to an analyst

Verizon Wireless, Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile are joining forces with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to work on curbing phone thefts using a central database that will store information about stolen phones, according to reports.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, along with law enforcement and representatives from the wireless industry, will announce the plan Tuesday. Operators will disable and block further use of a device once it is reported stolen, according to the New York Times.

It is too easy for thieves to steal phones and sell them on the black market, the Times quoted Genachowski as saying. "This program will make it a lot harder to do that. And the police departments we are working with tell us that it will significantly deter this kind of theft," he told the newspaper

Over the next six months, each of the four operators is expected to put in place a program to disable phones reported as stolen and within 18 months the FCC plans to help merge them into a central database in order to prevent a phone from being used on another carrier's network.

Sharing information about stolen mobile phones is far from a new practice in countries other than the U.S. The GSM Association has allowed operators to do that since 1996 when it established the Central Equipment Identity Register (CEIR), now known as the IMEI Database, according to a spokeswoman at the industry organization.

U.K. operators have been using the IMEI Database to exchange stolen handset data since 2002. Operators in Chile, Costa Rica, France, Germany, Ghana, Hungary, Italy, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Sweden and Venezuela use the database as well, she said via email.

It is surprising that U.S. operators haven't come around to sharing information about stolen phones, according to Mark Newman, chief research officer at market research company Informa Telecoms & Media.

"It is hard to find a reason why they haven't done it before," said Newman.

However, U.S. operators have a checkered history when it comes to joint initiatives. For example, it took them a long time to set up SMS interconnection, allowing users to send text messages between operators. That has partly been a function of a fragmented technology approach, Newman said.

"One could only imagine how the benefits would have accrued the operators if they had done this at an earlier stage," Newman said of the central database.

But better late than never, because trying to curb device thefts has become even more important as an increasing number of users have expensive smartphones, according to Newman.

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