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The Fix Is In

How our smartphones get fixed, why it’s harder than it should be, and why that matters
Released by: U.S. PIRG Education Fund

We rely on our phones. When they break, we need our phones fixed — fast. Unfortunately, there are numerous barriers to fixing our smartphones. Manufacturers don’t offer certain repairs and can push consumers into purchasing upgrades instead. Our survey of 302 independent repair technicians shows that independent shops offer more options for repair, but are struggling to access parts, service information and repair software which is necessary to fix phones — which manufacturers won’t let these independent shops have.

When people can’t fix their phones — or can’t find a repair technician who is willing and has the necessary parts and information to do the job — they have to get a new phone. And, in addition to the hit to your pocketbook for a new device, manufacturing a new phone takes a toll on the planet.

Researchers estimate that 85 percent of the climate impact of a smartphone comes from manufacturing, the rest from the use phase. A single phone produces the planet-warming equivalent of 122.7 pounds of carbon dioxide. And a single iPhone 6 takes 295 pounds of raw mineral — 75 pounds of ore and 220 pounds water — to produce.

Given that Americans purchase some 161 million new smartphones each year, that means our cell phone habit takes some 23.7 million tons of raw material to satisfy — that’s like consuming an Empire State Building equivalent in material every six days. If we held on to our phones one year longer on average, the emissions reductions would be equivalent to taking 636,000 cars off the road and would reduce manufacturing material demand by 42.5 million pounds per day — which would be like cutting a jumbo-jet’s weight in raw material use every 17 minutes.

Apple limits repair options both in and out of their stores

When the only option for repair is the “manufacturer authorized” shop, that presents a lot of challenges. These authorized repair providers might be a long distance away, or be severely limited in the repair options they will provide. For example, Apple told Congress last fall that they offer only four varieties of repairs in-store for their phones — battery, screen, camera and speaker replacements.

Apple, like Samsung, LG and others, doesn’t make spare parts, service diagrams or diagnostic software available to third parties either, all of which limits repair options.

Working with, U.S. PIRG Education Fund surveyed independent technicians, and 302 phone repair technicians responded. Ninety-six percent of respondents fix screens, 95 percent fix batteries, 78 percent fix charging ports, 49 percent fix water damage, and 54 percent offer board-level repairs to customers (29 percent offer these in-store, and an additional 25 percent subcontracts out board-level work).

This means that at least 78 percent of technicians reported their place of businesses offered repairs that fall outside what Apple said they offered. Because Apple does not offer board-level component repair for consumers’ devices, 54 percent also offered a type of service Apple doesn’t offer.

We also asked technicians to report how many cell phone repairs their business completed per month in a variety of categories. Of the total number of reported cell phone repairs per month, over 40,000 across the 302 technicians, we learned: Screens were 29 percent of repairs; Battery replacement was 18 percent; Speaker and Camera Replacement was another 12 percent; and 41 percent of all repairs were not in those four categories.

While screen and battery replacement are a large portion of the repairs, 47 percent of the total, an almost-as-equally-large portion of independent repair store business is offering repairs that at least Apple will not offer in-store. It is important to note that the competition here is not just in who is doing the repairs, but whether or not the repair is done in the shop at all.

The lack of diagnostic software is increasingly a concern. Asked, “Would your business be more successful if you had access to Apple or Samsung’s repair diagnostic software?,” 89 percent answered “Yes,” and only 2 percent answered “No.” Similarly when asked if they support Right to Repair reforms, 92 percent of surveyed shops answered “Yes,” and only 2 percent said these reforms were not needed.

To preserve consumer choice and reduce waste, independent technicians need to have access to parts, service software, technical information and tools necessary for repairs.

If third-party repair is eliminated, consumers will be significantly harmed. Many of the repairs that are being done by independent shops now would no longer be locally available. Not only are manufacturers restricting competition on repairs they offer, they are also denying access to necessary parts and information for the repairs they choose not to offer.

Empowering more repair would cut costs for consumers and extend the lifespan of our electronics, reducing the material drain and pollution of manufacturing, and reducing the electronic waste heading to landfills.

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