FCC: Mobile Carriers Must Allow Roaming

Mobile telephone carriers must allow customers' competitors to connect to their networks, and they must make roaming available to competitors for a "reasonable" cost, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said Tuesday.

Reacting to complaints about large carriers charging heavy roaming fees to customers of smaller competitors, the FCC voted to require that mobile carriers provide roaming services on a nondiscriminatory basis. Providing roaming connections is an obligation of commercial mobile phone carriers, the FCC said.

In addition to mobile voice calls, carriers must provide roaming to competitors for text-messaging and push-to-talk services, the commission said.

The FCC's two Democrats applauded the majority's decision, but said the commission should have extended the roaming order to broadband data services as well. "I believe we should have taken another step forward today," said commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat. "Consumers rely upon their mobile handsets these days for a dizzying array of data services, going well beyond those we cover in today's item."

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The commission declined to set roaming rules three times since 1996, but some consumer groups have complained about roaming fees as high as US$0.79 a minute. The fees have been particularly high for customers of small, rural carriers accessing large carriers' networks, Copps said.

"Today's item is good news for consumers who want to be able to use their mobile phones as they travel across the United States," Copps added.

Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell said he supported the FCC's "narrowly tailored" decision. The new rule does not set roaming rates or launch an investigation into roaming fees, he said. "Our light regulatory approach will benefit wireless consumers because we are allowing the industry to fulfill consumer expectations of anytime, anywhere communications through seamless roaming arrangements," McDowell added.

Large mobile carriers such as Sprint Nextel argued against new roaming rules, saying a competitive market was taking care of the problem. More than 8 percent of wireless calls were roaming calls in 1996, compared to less than 2 percent in 2006, Sprint Nextel said in a letter to the FCC dated July 23. Average roaming charges have dropped in that time from $0.82 per minute in 1995 to $0.04 in 2006, Sprint Nextel said.

But the Rural Cellular Association urged the FCC to set roaming rules for voice and data on mobile networks. Small carriers asking for roaming agreements for data have been rejected by large carriers, the trade group said in a letter to the FCC July 18. "Consumers need and should have access to voice and data services at all levels, including 3G and higher, when they leave their home carrier's service area," the letter said. "When the market fails, as it has here, the commission must step in to allow consumers to use their wireless equipment to access other carriers' high-speed networks."

The new roaming rules require automatic roaming connections when the equipment is technologically compatible.

"Consumers increasingly expect that their mobile phones will function where they work, where they play and where they travel," said FCC Chairman Kevin Martin. "Automatic roaming fulfills these expectations in a manner that is seamless and transparent to the consumer."

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