June 16, 2010
Opinions are divided among the nation's largest wireless carriers and public interest groups on whether the Federal Communications Commission can and should mandate automatic mobile data roaming. Expressing opposition to the proposed rule were Verizon Wireless and AT&T, while Sprint, along with public interest groups, rural carrier associations, and smaller carriers are in favor of it.
The rule is aimed at protecting mobile and smartphone users from being hit with high roaming charges when they use out-of-network wireless data services for Web surfing and e-mail. The FCC first put out a notice proposing the rule in April. Initial comments on the proposal were due Monday. Since 2007, carriers with technically compatible networks are required to sign agreements allowing their users to connect to competitors' networks while roaming for a "reasonable" cost. In a nod to the growing use of wireless broadband, the new proposal would extend that requirement to include wireless data service. Verizon argued that the rules aren't necessary since several carriers already voluntarily have entered into agreements. "The commission has repeatedly found that heightened regulatory obligations could discourage investment and innovation," Verizon said in its comments. "Because the facts do not show that there is a market failure or that consumers are being harmed in any way, the commission should continue its hands-off approach to mobile data services and should not adopt a data roaming requirement." Verizon also stated that the FCC has no legal authority to compel mobile data roaming since under the Communications Act, it is not classified as a common-carrier service. FCC commissioner Robert McDowell, who supported the rulemaking proposal in April, urged commenters to send in their opinion on whether the FCC can move forward with the rules in the wake of a recent federal appeals court ruling that questioned the FCC's authority to regulate broadband. In a blog post published in April, AT&T maintained that the proposed rule would discourage companies that already own wireless spectrum from developing their resources. Instead, smaller companies would take advantage of "home roaming" at the expense of building out their own networks, according to AT&T. But T-Mobile USA argued that the FCC should extend its efforts on mobile voice roaming to mobile data. "Increased consolidation in the wireless industry has limited the number of potential roaming partners, making a data roaming rule critical to ensure that T-Mobile and other carriers can be competitive with their larger rivals," Tom Sugrue, T-Mobile USA's VP for government affairs, said in a statement. "A data roaming rule would also benefit rural customers and promote facilities-based investment in rural areas." Sprint Nextel expressed similar support for the proposal. The proposal also received the backing of the Rural Cellular Association, which represents regional carriers with fewer than 10 million subscribers. The public interest group Free Press also supports the proposal. "The proposed data roaming rules will help smaller wireless companies offer affordable nationwide mobile broadband services, increasing competition and ultimately lowering prices for all wireless consumers," M. Chris Riley, Free Press' policy counsel, said in a statement. "Data roaming is an essential component of reform for the mobile broadband market."
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