Friday, April 08, 2011

USA - Smaller carriers welcome Regulator's decision to require data roaming from larger competitors

[wireless week] The FCC's approval of mandated data roaming yesterday was widely praised by competitors to AT&T and Verizon Wireless, who say the measure was needed to help them stay competitive.

Sprint, Cellular South and a bevy of other regional operators praised the FCC's adoption of the regulations, which had been heavily lobbied against by AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

Eric Graham, the head of government relations at regional operator Cellular South, said in an interview conducted before the FCC's vote Thursday that data roaming is just as important to Cellular South's consumers as voice roaming.

"Our wireless customers expect to use their smartphones for voice and data wherever they go," Graham said. "A data roaming requirement will give customers the assurance they can choose whatever carrier suits them best, and that wherever they go their phone will work."

Yesterday, Sprint government affairs executive Vonya McCann echoed Cellular South's comments, calling reasonable access to data roaming "essential" to carriers' ability to expand their mobile broadband services.

The regulations will require wireless operators to negotiate data roaming contracts on what the FCC deems "commercially reasonable" terms to their competitors, allowing smaller operators to provide their customers with mobile Internet service outside their network footprint.

While both Sprint and T-Mobile support a data roaming mandate, the issue is even more important for rural and regional carriers already struggling to survive in an increasingly crowded market. For carriers like Cellular South, the FCC's order will give them additional leverage on pricing when it comes time to negotiate data roaming contracts.

The FCC has not created set prices for roaming agreements under the proposed mandate, but now requires wireless operators offering mobile data services to offer data roaming to other operators on terms "subject to a standard of commercial reasonableness."

AT&T's and Verizon's smaller competitors have repeatedly claimed that the high charges levied on data roaming make it difficult for them to compete, a charge AT&T and Verizon dispute.

Cricket Communications has been one of the leading voices supporting the data roaming mandate. Cricket President and CEO Doug Hutcheson welcomed the agency's adoption of the order, saying the measure would help ensure that wireless subscribers have better access to mobile data services.

"With the increasing popularity of smart phones and the convergence of voice and data services, consumers should be free from worry that their devices might not work for a particular application depending on where in the United States they happen to be," Hutcheson said.

The measure has also been supported by the Rural Cellular Association. CTIA, whose members include carriers on both sides of the issue, has no official stance.

Verizon and AT&T continued to voice their opposition to the regulations yesterday in separately issued statements. Both operators claim the regulations are unnecessary and exceed the FCC's authority under Title II.

Verizon policy chief Tom Tauke said the FCC's order would allow rural and regional operators to piggyback on Verizon's infrastructure instead of investing in their own networks and reiterated the operator's claims that the regulations aren't needed and lie outside the FCC's regulatory authority.

"Today's action represents a new level of unwarranted government intervention in the wireless marketplace," Tauke said. "By forcing carriers that have invested in wireless infrastructure to make those networks available to competitors that avoid this investment, at a price ultimately determined by the FCC, today's order discourages network investment in less profitable areas."

Verizon says it has already entered into 40 data roaming agreements with its competitors. The operator also has created a program to lease its 700 MHz spectrum to rural carriers for LTE deployments. Carriers participating in Verizon's rural LTE program will be able to offer their subscribers nationwide LTE roaming on Verizon's network.

Regional Carriers Laud FCC Data Roaming Vote

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