FCC votes to force wireless data roaming agreements

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On a party line vote, the Federal Communications Commission mandated larger carriers to sign roaming agreements for mobile data with their smaller competitors, a move that had been widely expected. Previously such agreements had been voluntary, allowing big carriers such as AT&T and Verizon to hold a competitive advantage over rivals.

Three Democratic commissioners -- Chairman Julius Genachowski, Mignon Clyburn, and Michael Copps -- voted for the deal, while the two Republicans -- Robert McDowell and Meredith Baker -- voted against it. McDowell went a step further and maintained the FCC lacked the legal authority to enforce the measure.

"The majority's efforts to legally justify the new regulations, no matter how well meaning, cannot survive dispassionate analysis," he wrote in a dissenting opinion, referring to the fact that data is considered a private service and not eligible to be held to the regulations surrounding so-called "common carriage."

Verizon and AT&T also opposed the measure as the two carriers obviously would have the most to lose from the merger. Roaming deals themselves have become a hot topic in the wake of the announced merger between T-Mobile and AT&T. As a result of any possible failure in the merger, T-Mobile itself would be due a roaming agreement at terms favorable to the company.

In writing his opinion supporting the vote, Genachowski said that the larger carriers were simply not offering roaming deals to their smaller competitors. "A broad coalition of rural carriers informed us that their attempts to enter into data roaming negotiations with nationwide providers are 'many times rejected out of hand,'" he wrote.

Genachowski also pointed to the efforts by the FCC to work to ensure voice roaming as a blueprint for what it was attempting to do with data. "Every commenter that filed in this record, other than the two largest nationwide incumbents, asked the Commission to adopt data roaming rules," he continued. "From both a policy and legal perspective, standing idle in the face of this record would amount to shirking our responsibility."

The larger carriers aren't required to accept any roaming agreement, however those that cannot come to an agreement would be able to appeal to the FCC. In that case, the agency would take the role of an arbiter.

Groups representing rural carriers lauded the decision as 'historically significant.' "In a few years, we will look back at today's decision and wonder why there was ever any hesitation to require competitive connectivity in an IP world," Rural Wireless Asssociation president and CEO Steven Berry said in a statement. "Requiring automatic data roaming is the only logical conclusion you can come to. It is pro-business, pro-investment, pro-jobs and pro-competition."

Obviously, the big carrier's responses were markedly different. A representative for Verizon Wireless called the vote "a defeat for both consumers and the innovation fostered by true competition," while AT&T said a mandate was "unwarranted" and would discourage investment.

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