FCC Mandates Automatic Roaming

In a ruling issued on August 7th, the FCC ruled that carriers are obligated to permit roaming at reasonable rates for customers of competing carriers where the technology is compatible with their respective networks.

In a statement issued today, the FCC has ruled that providing roaming services to competitor carriers is an obligation of all carriers, and that such services should be provided on a non-discriminatory basis. Roaming agreements among the national carriers are long-standing and fairly standardized, but smaller regional and rural carriers have long complained about the refusal by the larger carriers to allow roaming, or that the large carriers charge unreasonable rates.

According to the press release by the FCC:

The common carrier obligation to provide roaming extends to real-time, two-way switched voice or data services that are interconnected with the public switched network and utilize an in-network switching facility that enables the provider to reuse frequencies and accomplish seamless hand-offs of subscriber calls. The FCC also extended the automatic roaming obligation to “Push-to-Talk” and text messaging services, and sought comment on
whether the roaming obligation should be extended to services that are classified as information services or to services that are not CMRS.

Each commissioner has also issued statements on the ruling. The topic drawing the most comment in disagreement among the commissioners is data roaming. Chairman Kevin Martin, in his published statement stated that the FCC would seek public comment on the idea of data roaming. Additionally, he expressed concern over how a data roaming ruling would affect the 2009 auction of spectrum at 700MHz, where some companies have looked at “wholesale” models where they’d license and build out networks in that band, and then wholesale access to virtual operators.

Democratic commissioners, however, wanted the ruling to go further, to include data services. As the chairman’s comments make clear, however, that is not going to happen in the near term. All members of commission agreed that the voice roaming ruling (and the inclusion of Push-To-Talk in that ruling) represents a good step toward ensuring customer of small regional and rural carriers gain access to the same nationwide access enjoyed by the bigger carriers’ customers, and at reasonable rates. Exactly how Push-To-Talk roaming would be possible is not clear, however, as all such services except for Direct Connect on Nextel are data-based services.