In a party-line vote, the Federal Communications Commission took steps on Thursday to ensure that mobile customers can access the Internet wherever they go -- even when they leave their providers' service areas.
Under new "data-roaming" rules backed by the agency's three Democratic regulators, national carriers such as AT&T and Verizon must negotiate such agreements with competitors on a timely basis, and under “reasonable” terms and conditions. The FCC would facilitate baseball-style arbitration in situations where parties are unable to reach an agreement.
“These safeguards ensure that small regional carriers can hope to compete in the wireless marketplace,” said Michael Copps, a Democratic commissioner. “Our regulations always must keep pace with new technologies.”
The agency’s two Republican commissioners voted against the proposal, arguing that the FCC lacks the legal authority to implement it. Nevertheless, they encouraged mobile companies to enter into data-roaming agreements on their own, without government involvement.
Sprint, the nation’s third-largest cellular provider, praised the action, saying that data roaming “is essential to the expansion of mobile broadband service” and would result in increased infrastructure investment.
But the action got two thumbs-down from Verizon, the country’s biggest mobile carrier, and from AT&T, which is seeking federal approval of its planned purchase of T-Mobile for $39 billion, a deal that would vault AT&T to the top spot.
“Today’s action represents a new level of unwarranted government intervention in the wireless marketplace,” Tom Tauke, executive vice president at Verizon, complained in a statement. “By forcing carriers that have invested in wireless infrastructure to make those networks available to competitors that avoid this investment, at a price ultimately determined by the FCC,” the rules discourage expenditures in “less profitable” areas, he said.
“A data-roaming mandate is unwarranted and will discourage investment and build-out of broadband facilities,” Bob Quinn, chief privacy officer and senior vice president of federal regulatory affairs at AT&T, echoed in a statement.
The commissioners responsible for the new rules insisted that smaller carriers are often rebuffed when they seek such as agreements – particularly with AT&T and Verizon.
But the agency’s two Republicans, Robert McDowell and Deborah Taylor Tate, maintained that the rules amount to regulation of broadband as a public utility – which they argued the FCC does not have the jurisdiction to do.
“The commission simply does not have the legal authority to adopt the legal regime mandated by this order,” McDowell argued. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, a Democrat, countered that the proposal gives carriers ample flexibility to enter into marketplace-driven negotiations, is modeled after the agency’s framework for voice-roaming agreements and has a strong legal basis under the 1934 Communications Act.
This article appears in the April 7, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.