FCC to vote on data roaming, cell phone boosters at April meeting

The FCC will vote on a raft of wireless issues at its monthly open meeting on April 7, including mandatory data roaming rules and guidelines for cell phone signal boosters, two long-running and contentious issues.

Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) and AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) have strongly petitioned against the automatic data roaming proposal since it was floated last year. Smaller carriers, including Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S), T-Mobile USA and Cricket provider Leap Wireless (NASDAQ:LEAP), are in favor of it. 

It's unclear how the commissioners will vote or if the data roaming mandate will face a legal challenge. The FCC mandated voice roaming rules since voice is a common-carrier service--but mobile data can be considered an information service and therefore may not fall under the agency's purview. Robert McDowell, one of the FCC's two Republican commissioners, said last year he supported the rulemaking, but urged commenters to send in their legal analyses on whether the FCC can move forward with the rules.

Additionally, the FCC is going to vote on cell phone boosters, which are designed to provide the true range of a signal in areas where signal strength is weak. The declaratory rulemaking is expected to establish the manufacturing guidelines for cell phone boosters and likely will include rules to ensure that they do not interfere with carriers operating in licensed spectrum. The CTIA has urged the FCC to more tightly regulate boosters.

The issue is apparently critical for wireless carriers. AT&T in a recent FCC filing wrote that "the illegal use of signal boosters is a widespread and well-documented occurrence, resulting in dropped calls, including 911 calls, as well as affecting 911 accuracy. On many occasions, signal booster interference has resulted in a total loss of service in the affected cell site sector. Remedying the interference caused by boosters is extremely difficult as the interference may be transient, especially in the case of mobile boosters, and requires significant carrier and public safety resources."

Wilson Electronics, a maker of boosters, is urging the FCC to allow the devices. "We have precedent with carriers in Canada that have worked with Wilson Electronics to ensure that the networks aren't at risk," Wilson COO Joe Banos said in a statement to FierceWireless. "Raising the bar on boosters is a win-win for the carriers, consumers, government operations as well as public safety."

The FCC also will vote on two related proposals on utility pole attachments and siting guidelines. The commission will vote on changes to its rules for pole attachments to speed up wired and wireless broadband deployments, as well as a notice of inquiry seeking comment on the best ways to expand broadband by improving policies for government rights of way and wireless facility siting requirements.

For more:
- see this FCC schedule
- see this Forbes article
- see this The Hill article

Related Articles:
Data roaming battle heats up ahead of FCC's April meeting
FCC considers cell booster ban
Smaller operators call on FCC to act on data roaming mandate
T-Mobile, AT&T deadlock on 3G data roaming deal
Mosaic: AT&T won't let us roam onto 3G network

Article updated March 18 to update the nature of cell phone boosters.