FCC shoves mobile roaming down large cellular carriers throats

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission recently enacted rules dictating that mobile carriers provide roaming services on a nondiscriminatory basis. That is, cellular telephone service providers must allow customers of competitors to connect to their networks at a “reasonable” cost, when the equipment is technologically compatible.

The new rule stopped short of setting roaming rates or investigating roaming fee violations. Also, it is limited to voice calls, text-messaging, and push-to-talk services. The FCC didn’t include broadband data services in the roaming order, despite the urging by the Rural Cellular Association to set roaming rules for both voice and data. After all, mobile handsets are used not just for voice, but for a wide array of data services. This didn’t happened probably because the republicans in the FCC put to stop to that. Given that the FCC has declined to set roaming rules three times since 1996, this is a step forward and a victory for consumers and for those smaller (and mostly) rural cellular carriers.

In contrast, the Europeans recently went further – the European Union requires cellular operators to provide a so-called Eurotariff of 0.49 euro cents per minute for making calls and 0.24 cents a minute for receiving calls in another country by 30 July 2007. This makes sense because Europeans frequently travel among the many countries in Europe, most of which have technologically compatible wireless networks.

Large mobile carriers like Sprint Nextel argued against new roaming rules, saying a competitive market place was resolving the issue. Sprint Nextel also argued that more than 8 percent of wireless calls were roaming calls in 1996, compared to less than 2 percent in 2006, and that average roaming charges have dropped from $0.82 per minute in 1995 to $0.04 in 2006.

Frankly, big companies liked the status quo because they made good money from roaming fees to subscribers of small carriers. Big wireless companies such as AT&T (Cingular), Sprint, and Verizon Wireless provide coverage over huge swaths of populated areas, so they command more “roaming” clout over a smaller carrier. As a result, roaming charges are particularly high for subscribers of small, rural carriers accessing large carriers’ networks. In fact, the complaint is that large carriers are charging heavy roaming fees to customers of smaller competitors.

The ruling fell short, but another good move by the FCC nonetheless!