Research & Commentary: FCC’s Data-Roaming Mandate

Published April 3, 2011

On April 7, 2011 the Federal Communications Commission is expected to vote on a data-roaming mandate that would force mobile operators to offer their data networks to smaller carriers on “commercially reasonable terms and conditions.” A current mandate forcing wireless providers to allow other companies to use their infrastructure covers only voice signals. The new proposal would apply the same rules to signals allowing mobile access to the Internet, email, etc.

Proponents of the measure say it will help small and start-up wireless carriers by allowing them to offer broad coverage with minimal infrastructure investment. Opponents say the regulations would force larger carriers to subsidize smaller ones and allow small providers to piggyback on the massive infrastructure investments of larger ones. American Consumer Institute President Steve Pociask notes, “When private companies compete for market share, consumers always win; but when regulations and legislation help advantage competitors, consumers invariably lose.”

The FCC was able to mandate voice roaming because voice signals fall under the “common-carrier” distinction and are thus subject to FCC regulation. Data communications, however, are considered “information signals” and thus outside FCC jurisdiction. The FCC recently tried to bring Internet Service Providers under the common carrier distinction, but the United States Court of Appeal for the District of Columbia ruled the FCC’s jurisdiction for “common carriers” does not extend to Internet services.

Many small wireless carriers are already striking up mutually beneficial deals with larger carriers to provide data coverage. Giving the FCC the power to decide what is and is not “commercially reasonable” puts even more power in the hands of unelected bureaucrats. There is no need to mandate something that is already happening in the marketplace.

 The following articles provide additional information on the proposed data-roaming mandate.

Rural Wireless Providers Lobby for New FCC Roaming Rules


InfoTech & Telecom News writer Phil Britt reports on the market problems inherent in a data-roaming mandate and the ramifications for innovation and infrastructure improvements. The article also indicates the potential for FCC overreaction in appeasing small actors upset about recent mergers such as AT&T/T-Mobile.

Sprint, T-Mobile Push FCC for AT&T and Verizon Data Roaming


Electronista reports on the attempts to regulate wireless data by FCC mandate. The author writes, “The incumbents have also repeated their objections to any FCC rules that would treat data like voice, where common carrier deals require that they always connect to those from competing networks and can’t deliberately overcharge those that do.”

On Roaming Charges and Other Corporate Subsidies – The FCC Is Open for Business


American Consumer Institute President Steve Pociask argues that in the case of data-roaming, regulations would advantage small competitors over larger companies.

Wireless Data at Center of Tug of War


Politico reporter Brooks Boliek provides background on the perspective of both sides in the debate over mandated data-roaming.

Carriers Lobby FCC Ahead of Data Roaming Vote


This Wireless Week article highlights the free-market argument against the data-roaming mandate. Verizon representatives contend “the record ‘supplies neither a factual nor a legal basis’ for the FCC to adopt a data roaming mandate.” AT&T representative Jeanine Poltronieri argues in a filing cited in the article, “Wireless providers already have scores of data roaming agreements with more currently under negotiation and … they are aggressively investing in and deploying next-generation wireless networks.”

Complete Data Roaming Proceedings


Hosted at the Benton Foundation Web site, this is the FCC’s official Report & Order notes on the proceedings. The document provides a good backdrop for the process leading up to the April 7 vote.

Wireless Carriers Call on FCC to Act on Data Roaming Mandate


Juliana Gruenwald of National Journal reports on the call for a data-roaming mandate, citing many of the major players. Rural Telecommunications Group General Counsel Carri Bennet cites President Barack Obama’s plan to expand broadband access as a reason to mandate these agreements. “Without these data roaming agreements or assurances that these data roaming agreements will be forthcoming, President Obama’s vision will not be realized.” Verizon representatives put the onus on the rural telecom companies: “Market forces continue to work to ensure that carriers that want data roaming agreements, including data roaming agreements for broadband services, are able to enter into such agreements,” Verizon said in a statement.

For further information on this subject, visit the InfoTech & Telecom News Web site at or the InfoTech Issue Suite at The Heartland Institute’s Web site at

Nothing in this message is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. If you have any questions about this issue or the Heartland Institute Web site, please contact Marc Oestreich, legislative specialist in telecommunications, at 312/3774000 or [email protected].