What has happened: For years, smaller carriers, especially in rural areas, complained about the so-called "home roaming exclusion." The exclusion, dating from 2007, essentially said that carriers that acquired spectrum at auction, and were looking to enter into a new service area but had not yet built out their networks, were not entitled to roaming. Larger carriers argued that smaller carrier were being opportunistic, but smaller carriers said the practice harmed consumers by preventing them from accessing service while the carriers built out their networks.
In April, the FCC modified roaming rules to abolish the home roaming exclusion for voice services. At the same meeting, the FCC voted to investigate whether to apply automatic roaming to mobile data, which expanded the scope of a previous proceeding and acknowledged the evolution of the wireless broadband ecosystem.
What's next: Public interest groups have said they expect the FCC to adopt automatic data roaming rules. However, the issue has split the industry. Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) and AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) are opposed to the proposed rules, arguing that they will hamper network investment. Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S), T-Mobile USA and rural carriers have come out in favor of the rules.
Steve Berry, president of the Rural Cellular Association, which represents regional carriers with fewer than 10 million subscribers, said he thinks pushing through automatic data roaming rules should, in theory, be a slam dunk. He said that no member of Congress wants to tell their constituents that their mobile data services will not be able to work throughout the country.
Final comments on the data roaming proceeding were due in July. "We think that an updated and broader record will help identify policies that best promote investment, competition, and benefit to consumers," said Ruth Milkman, the chief of the FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, "Bureau staff is actively reviewing the record, and hopes to move expeditiously toward recommendations."