Appeals Court Upholds FCC's Data Roaming Requirements

The FCC has the authority to require mobile carriers to enter into data roaming agreements, the court says

A U.S. appeals court has upheld the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's authority to require mobile carriers to enter into data roaming agreements with each other.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, in a unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel released Tuesday, upheld the FCC's April 2011 order requiring carriers to offer data roaming services to competitors at commercially reasonable rates. In May 2011, Verizon Wireless challenged the FCC decision, saying the agency doesn't have the authority to impose the data roaming regulations on a mobile broadband service.

Verizon argued that the order created common carrier rules for a data service, but Judge David Tatel rejected that argument, saying the FCC order, focused on individually negotiated roaming deals commercially reasonable rates, does not amount to heavy new regulations. The FCC has "broad authority" in the Telecommunications Act to manage wireless spectrum in the public interest, he wrote.

Verizon didn't have an immediate comment on the court's decision.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski praised the ruling. "This unanimous decision confirms the FCC's authority to promote broadband competition and protect broadband consumers," he said in a statement. "Our rules have empowered consumers and expanded their ability to enjoy the benefits of seamless and nationwide access to mobile data services, including wireless Internet and e-mail."

Some Democratic lawmakers also cheered the decision. "These rules promote competition and the seamless availability of wireless services consumers have come to expect," Representative Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat, said in a statement. "Such rules are particularly important for smaller wireless carriers that often have little choice for roaming partners other than their largest rivals."

Some telecom experts have connected the court's action on the FCC's data roaming order to an upcoming decision on the agency's controversial net neutrality rules, also challenged by Verizon.

"Both orders at bottom raise the exact same legal authority question: does the FCC has direct statutory authority to price regulate an unregulated information service?" Scott Cleland, a telecom commentator with ties to large carriers, wrote in May 2011.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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