Cell Phones in the United States are easy to obtain, generally affordable with a one or two year contract, and are routinely upgraded. Consumers in many other parts of the world, however, do not have access to credit and must pay the full price for the hardware upfront. This makes used cell phones an affordable and attractive option for consumers in such markets. Affordability is particularly important in areas that lack a fully established network infrastructure. Consumers may need to rely on multiple devices, each serviced by different cellular carriers, in order to stay connected as they travel.
Effective testing and reuse of retired phones within the U.S. market can help supply the growing demand for used cellular phones in emerging markets. It is important not to lose sight, however, of the importance of accountability and responsible reuse practices in the face of growing global demand for used cell phones.
One important consideration is data security. Cell phones use memory chips for storage which may not be effectively overwritten with traditional overwrite techniques for hard drives. Each phone contains a "Master Reset" function to restore it to factory defaults. The master reset function, however, is not always effective at completely erasing data. Even though the phone may appear to be cleared of photos and other data, freely available data recovery software can identify photos and other data that still remains hidden in the phone. Robust verification is essential to a legitimate data wiping operation during refurbishment.
Another challenge for refurbishers is the issue of Apple Locked phones. Highly valuable iPhones are sometimes locked by the iCloud account of the previous user (Find My iPhone - Activation Lock). This is a great theft deterrent and protects user data. However, this is not a device function, and consequently, prevents refurbishers from accessing, testing, or data clearing of legitimate trade-in phones. At present, no solution is known. The only option is to periodically try to unlock the phone to see if the previous user has released the Apple Lock. Unless the lock has been released so that the phone can be properly tested and cleared of data, locked phones have no legitimate resale value under the R2 requirements of Provision 6.
Additionally, the technical capabilities of the refurbisher must be considered. They must possess the expertise to effectively test the key functions of a cell phone including: the ability of a battery to hold a charge, the ability to make a call, the functionality of the speaker and microphone, and the functionality of the keys or touch screen. R2 certified companies selling phones for reuse must be able to demonstrate effective testing methods of these key functions.
Provisions 6 of the R2 Standard has set a high bar for testing and reuse of devices. Though the market value of a cell phone may be high, it cannot be sold for reuse unless it has been properly tested. R2 Certified recyclers are required to ensure legitimate reuse and must not pass potential problems downstream. Examples of legitimate reuse in such cases may be to harvest working parts, or to combine the working parts of multiple failed phones into working phones. Cell phone refurbishment is a specialized skill and legitimate reuse is most likely to pass through a company with cell phone testing and repair as their primary business.