Smaller wireless companies called on the Federal Communications Commission Thursday to hurry up and update the nation's wireless roaming rules to include data services to reflect the growing use of mobile phones for far more than just voice communications.
They want the FCC to act on a rule that would ensure their customers can access data networks operated by other providers when outside their own network area at fair rates and terms. Companies such as Cricket Communications, Sprint and T-Mobile held a news conference to call on the FCC to include a proposed rule mandating data roaming on its April agenda.
"Regarding data roaming, there is no question that there is a severe market failure," Rural Telecommunications Group General Counsel Carri Bennet, whose group represents small wireless operators, said in a statement.
She said the rule is needed to help meet the Obama administration's goal of ensuring 98 percent of Americans have access to wireless broadband in five years. "RTG's members are willing to move forward with such deployments, provided they can assure their rural consumers that their devices will be able to access data networks outside of their rural areas on fair and equitable terms, Bennet said. "Without these data roaming agreements or assurances that these data roaming agreements will be forthcoming, President Obama's vision will not be realized."
The firms argue that AT&T and Verizon Wireless, the nation's biggest wireless providers, currently have a duopoly in providing nationwide service and that the FCC needs to step in with rules to help ensure that as they migrate to new technologies, customers of other providers can access those networks when needed. Tom Sugrue with T-Mobile argued that his firm and others "are asking for the FCC to help when we can't reach agreements on roaming."
"The current FCC roaming regulatory regime ... is still rooted in the legacy circuit switched voice environment," Sprint Vice President of Government Affairs Charles McKee said in a filing last week with the FCC. "If the commission fails to update its roaming policy and adopt a data roaming obligation that reflects this fundamental shift in the mobile marketplace, its current framework may not only become irrelevant, but may actually impede IP broadband deployment and innovation."
If the FCC fails to move forward with its rule, Bennet suggested that smaller wireless operators may need to appeal to lawmakers to act or to the Justice Department, to examine whether Verizon and AT&T are engaged in anti-competitive practices.
They've already gotten the help of some lawmakers in prodding the FCC to move forward on data roaming rules. In a letter last month to the FCC, Senate Appropriations ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., noted the success of the FCC's voice roaming rules in ensuring consumers have mobile access throughout the country.
"It is now important that the FCC implement policies which would guarantee the same reliable roaming coverage with regard to data services," Cochran wrote. "Americans currently use voice and data services interchangeably, and citizens may experience critical interruption in business and personal communications when data roaming is unavailable."
In a filing Monday with the FCC, Verizon argued that "market forces" are working and those firms arguing for commission action have yet to show a "market failure exists."
"Market forces continue to work to ensure that carriers that want data roaming agreements, including data roaming agreements for broadband services, are able to enter into such agreements," Verizon said in its filing.