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FCC Adopts New Wireless Data-roaming Rules

April 8, 2011

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3-2 on Thursday to adopt “data roaming” rules to generate more competition in wireless broadband, as a growing number of Americans turn to smartphones and other popular mobile devices to access the Internet.

The new rules would require major wireless carriers to open their data networks to smaller, regional operators in areas where they lack their own infrastructure.

The large carriers will be required to offer network access at reasonable prices, and the FCC would resolve any negotiation disputes.

“Mobile providers must be able to offer nationwide voice and data plans to have any chance of competing in today’s market,” said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

However, based on evidence gathered from wireless operators “roaming deals are simply not being widely offered on commercially reasonable terms,” he said.

Indeed, the agency found that Verizon Wireless and AT&T had engaged in very few data roaming agreements on their 3G networks, and declined to commit to reaching agreements on the 4G LTE networks both companies are rolling out.

The data roaming rules are a response to consolidation in an industry dominated by two major carriers — AT&T Inc. and Verizon Wireless.  AT&T’s proposed $39 billion acquisition for T-Mobile USA would concentrate 80 percent of U.S. wireless contract customers with AT&T/T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless.

“With AT&T’s proposed acquisition of T-Mobile and the corresponding threat it poses to continued wireless competition, it is absolutely critical that the FCC take steps to promote competition and level the playing field,” said Vonya McCann, senior vice president of government affairs at Sprint.

Existing voice roaming rules already allow regional network operators to use the large carriers’ networks to handle phone calls outside their own service areas. 

But smaller wireless providers such as Sprint Nextel and MetroPCS say they need to be able to do that with data services as well, and have lobbied for data roaming rules to compete in offering consumers nationwide broadband connectivity.

Republican Commissioners Robert McDowell and Meredith Attwell Baker voted against the measure, saying they believe the rules impose common carrier obligations. 

The Democrat Commissioners disagreed.

“It’s the opposite of common carriage because the framework relies on individualized, case-by-case market deals that will vary,” Genachowski said during a briefing with reporters.

Under the new rules, wireless carriers can negotiate the terms of the agreements, and could enact safeguards to prevent congestion or harm to their networks from roaming traffic.

Disputes can be brought to the FCC for resolution on a case-by-case basis.

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