AT&T, T-Mobile bicker over possible 3G data roaming agreement

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In arguments to the FCC, T-Mobile USA claimed that AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) has refused to enter into a 3G data roaming agreement--a claim that AT&T quickly refuted. The dust-up between the nation's two largest GSM-based carriers underscores the nascent but potentially lucrative market for data roaming services.

In a filing Tuesday with the FCC, T-Mobile detailed a meeting between carrier executives and FCC officials. "As further evidence of the need for a data roaming rule, we noted that T-Mobile has not been able to achieve a 3G roaming agreement with AT&T," T-Mobile wrote in its summary of the meeting. "We contrasted that state of affairs with AT&T's apparent willingness to provide 3G roaming to foreign carriers."

In a response filed the next day with the FCC, AT&T countered T-Mobile's claims. In its filing, AT&T included a letter written by Gram Meadors, head of AT&T's wireless roaming strategy, to T-Mobile executives.

"I am contacting you [T-Mobile's Dirk Mosa] regarding the attached letter your regulatory folks recently filed with the FCC, in which they said that TMO had been ‘unable to achieve' a 3G roaming agreement with AT&T," Meadors wrote. "This is extremely surprising given that neither you nor Heather [Stacey, a senior manager at T-Mobile] ever requested a right to roam on AT&T's 3G network in conjunction with last year's negotiations that resulted in our current bi-lateral voice and data roaming agreement. I understand that TMO may have raised the 3G issue with my predecessor (Andy Spence), but that would have been before I assumed domestic roaming responsibilities in March, 2009 and before TMO had a commercial 3G network of its own. It is also my understanding that the result of those conversations was that AT&T would be happy to revisit the topic in the future once our respective 3G networks evolved."

In his letter, Meadors also offered T-Mobile executives a lesson on the basics of both carriers' networks.

"Since the 3G network TMO has since developed operates on AWS spectrum (which is not compatible with the 3G handsets utilized by AT&T's customers), we do not have a current desire to roam on TMO's 3G network," Meadors wrote. "However, if TMO truly has a desire to roam on AT&T's 3G network (which operates on 1900 and 850 MHz spectrum), we will be more than happy to amend our current roaming agreement to include 3G roaming. If TMO is interested, please let me know how you would like to proceed."

Tom Sugrue, T-Mobile's vice president of government affairs, responded to FierceWireless questions on the topic late Wednesday: "We welcome the opportunity to engage with AT&T to achieve a 3G roaming agreement at reasonable and nondiscriminatory terms. However, T-Mobile still believes there is a need for the FCC to ensure the market for data roaming services works efficiently and fairly by adopting a rule that makes clear that there is a right to automatic data roaming akin to the voice market."

The FCC is currently considering whether to apply automatic roaming rules to mobile data. Larger wireless carriers have argued that the FCC should not mandate data roaming agreements, while smaller carriers have argued the opposite. In April, the FCC modified roaming rules to abolish the home roaming exclusion for voice services.

Data roaming agreements are becoming increasingly important in the new world of smartphones and 3G data services. Indeed, according to research firm Current Analysis, Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) inked a 10-year 3G roaming deal with Alltel in 2006, which carried over to Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) when Verizon acquired Alltel--a deal that technically gives Sprint access to Verizon's entire 3G footprint. Separately, Leap Wireless (NASDAQ:LEAP) recently inked a 3G data roaming agreement with Sprint.

For more:
- see this T-Mobile FCC filing
- see this AT&T FCC filing

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