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FCC makes wireless data roaming mandatory

fcc-julius-Genachowski-wireless-data-roamingThe Federal Communications Commission voted today to adopt new data roaming rules that will allow smartphones to access wireless Internet networks nationwide, in areas not covered by the users’ wireless provider. The functionality would be similar to roaming related to voice and text messaging.

The 3-2 vote, which was held this morning during the FCC’s monthly public meeting, requires large wireless companies like Verizon Wireless and AT&T to offer customers “reasonable” roaming rates.

“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. He added that wireless carrier do not currently offer roaming deals “on commercially reasonable terms.”

The new rules were pushed forward by petitions filed with the FCC by smaller wireless carriers, like Sprint Nextel, Leap Wireless and MetroPCS, all of whom argue that Verizon and AT&T’s reluctance to offer roaming access to their 3G and 4G networks hurts their ability to compete. These carriers hope the data roaming rules will increase their ability to offer competitive services to customers.

Rules to increase competition have taken on new weight in the wireless industry with AT&T’s planned $39 billion acquisition of T-Mobile USA. If approved, the AT&T/T-Mobile deal will concentrate 80 percent of wireless customers under only two carriers — AT&T/T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless.

The new rules will allow for each wireless company to negotiate their own data roaming deals with AT&T and Verizon. They also allow for the companies to make arrangements to prevent data congestion in high-use areas.

“By adopting a ‘commercially reasonable’ standard for data roaming offers, we give carriers flexibility to tailor agreements to different environments and to account for concerns regarding congestion and technical compatibility,” said Genachowski in a statement.

AT&T and Verizon have both opposed the new rules, arguing that they not only already have sufficient data roaming deals worked out with smaller providers, but that the FCC doesn’t have the authority to impose such rules upon the industry due to the way the wireless Internet is categorized — a point that Republican Commissioners Robert McDowell and Meredith Attwell Baker agree with, causing them to vote against their Democratic counterparts on the matter.

“A data-roaming mandate is unwarranted and will discourage investment,” Robert Quinn, AT&T chief privacy officer and senior vice president of federal regulatory, told Bloomberg in an e-mail today. “Proponents of a roaming mandate were seeking government intervention, not to obtain agreements — which are plentiful — but rather to regulate rates downward.”

“Verizon is not anti-roaming,” Tamara Priess, vice president of federal regulatory affairs for Verizon, told CNet. “We’re anti-regulated roaming.”

The rules are a step forward for President Obama’s National Broadband Plan, which seeks to offer high-speed wireless Internet access nationwide.

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