Carriers, public-interest groups clash over data roaming

The nation's biggest wireless carriers and several public-interest groups offered sharply different opinions on whether the FCC can and should mandate automatic mobile data roaming. Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) and AT&T (NYSE:T) are opposed to the proposed rules, but public-interest groups, rural carrier associations and smaller carriers are in favor of them. 

All of the parties commented on an item the FCC adopted in April, when it also abolished home roaming rules for voice services. The FCC voted to adopt a second further notice of proposed rulemaking on whether to apply automatic roaming to mobile data, which expands the scope of a previous proceeding and acknowledges the evolution of the wireless broadband ecosystem. The rulemaking also sought comment on whether the FCC has the legal authority to take action on the issue. Comments were due Monday.

"The commission has repeatedly found that heightened regulatory obligations could discourage investment and innovation," Verizon said in its comments. "Because the facts do not show that there is a market failure or that consumers are being harmed in any way, the commission should continue its hands off approach to mobile data services and should not adopt a data roaming requirement."

Verizon also said that the FCC does not have the legal authority to compel mobile data roaming since the service is not classified as a common-carrier service under the Communications Act. When he supported the rulemaking proposal in April, FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell urged commenters to send in their legal analysis on whether the FCC can move forward with the rules in the wake of a recent federal appeals court ruling that cast doubt on the FCC's authority to regulate broadband.

However, T-Mobile USA argued that the FCC should extend its efforts on mobile voice roaming to mobile data. "Increased consolidation in the wireless industry has limited the number of potential roaming partners, making a data roaming rule critical to ensure that T-Mobile and other carriers can be competitive with their larger rivals," Tom Sugrue, T-Mobile USA's vice president for government affairs, said in a statement. "A data roaming rule would also benefit rural customers and promote facilities-based investment in rural areas." Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) expressed similar support for the proposal. 

The proposal also received the backing of the Rural Cellular Association, which represents regional carriers with fewer than 10 million subscribers. The public-interest group Free Press also supports the proposal. "The proposed data roaming rules will help smaller wireless companies offer affordable nationwide mobile broadband services, increasing competition and ultimately lowering prices for all wireless consumers,"  M. Chris Riley, Free Press' policy counsel, said in a statement. "Data roaming is an essential component of reform for the mobile broadband market."

For more:
- see this The Hill article
- see this The Hill article on Free Press

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