Settling a class action suit brought by customers in California, Sprint Nextel has agreed to provide its departing customers with the software codes needed to “unlock” their handsets so they can be used on the networks of competing carriers. Experts say that the settlement—which affects customers who signed contracts with Sprint between August 1999 and July 2007—could signal a shift in long-standing wireless industry policies that have tied handsets to specific carriers and that have forced customers to purchase new handsets every time they switch providers. The class action suit filed last year against Sprint claimed that the company’s practice of locking its handsets was anticompetitive as it discouraged customers from switching carriers. As part of a proposed settlement approved tentatively this month with the Alameda County, California Superior Court, Sprint would share unlocking codes with all current and former subscribers as soon as they complete the terms of their contracts, pay their final bills, and have their phones deactivated. The unlock codes would work with Sprint CDMA handsets, thereby enabling customers to use those phones on the networks of competitive CDMA carriers such as Alltel and Verizon. The phones, however, are not compatible with the networks of AT&T and T-Mobile, which use GSM technology. Sprint-Nextel branded phones that use iDEN technology are also not subject to the offer. Sources also say that the settlement would cover a similar lawsuit filed against Sprint in Palm Beach County, Florida. Terming the settlement as “a step in the direction of opening up the possibility of letting people own their own phone and use it with the carrier they want,” one telecom industry analyst predicted: “over the next two or three years, we’ll see the U.S. carriers go the way of the European market,” where handsets and services are purchased separately.