FCC takes action on mobile roaming, USF reform

WASHINGTON--The FCC voted to abolish home roaming rules for voice services and also opened an inquiry into whether automatic roaming rules should apply to mobile data services. Separately, the commission voted to move ahead on one of the key proposals in its national broadband plan, beginning a reform of the Universal Service Fund by repurposing it for expanded broadband access.

At the FCC's open monthly meeting, the panel voted unanimously to reverse a 2007 order that did not require carriers to offer roaming services to other carriers in areas where they owned spectrum but had not built out network coverage. Smaller carriers have argued the existing practice harms consumers since they need roaming agreements while they build out their networks.

Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker was not present at the meeting, due to the death of her mother, but FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said her votes on the commission's agenda items will be recorded electronically.

The order on voice roaming means that home roaming will now be subject to automatic roaming requirements, and applies a general assumption of reasonableness to the agreements. The commission will still address roaming disputes between carriers on a case-by-case basis. "St. Augustine wisely taught us that it is human to err, but it is devilish to remain woefully in error," Commissioner Michael Copps said, in explaining his support for the changed rules.

The commission also 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 seeks comment on whether the FCC has the legal authority to take action on the issue. Commissioner Robert McDowell said he supported the rulemaking, but urged commenters to send in their legal analyses 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.

Additionally, the FCC voted to approve a notice of inquiry and notice of proposed rulemaking that begins the transition of the $8.7 billion USF from supporting rural voice services to expanding broadband access. Over the course of 10 years, the FCC hopes to shift the USF entirely from supporting voice to supporting broadband access. The agency's notice of inquiry seeks comment on the proper model for doing this, and on interim competitive procurement rules to accelerate broadband deployment while the FCC works on final rules. The rulemaking also seeks comment on how to control the costs of the current program.

McDowell said the commission agreed that the current USF is "antiquated, arcane, inefficient and downright broken." Genachowski characterized the issue as a "multi-layer, Rubik's cube of a project."

"It will not be easy, that is the consensus of this group, and we know that to be true," he said. "But it is also what we are committed to do."

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