FCC to Look at in-market Roaming Issues

July 15 2008
RCR Wireless News

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin signaled the agency is prepared to fix a roaming snag faced by wireless providers delayed in constructing networks because spectrum licenses won at major auctions remain occupied by commercial and government users.

The FCC’s decision last year to require mobile-phone carriers to provide each other with reasonable and non-discriminatory automatic roaming for voice, text and push-to-talk services has created a quandary for many wireless providers who picked up licenses in the 700 MHz auction earlier this year and the advanced wireless services-1 (1700 MHz/2100 MHz) auction in 2006.

A big snafu has arisen over a provision making an exception to the rule if a wireless competitor seeks roaming access in a market in which it has purchased spectrum rights. The problem is that AWS-1 and 700 MHz winning bidders have not been able to readily buildout new markets because some commercial and government users have yet to relocate from auctioned spectrum to other frequencies.

Martin said the in-market exclusion was enacted for a good reason, but acknowledges it has had unintended consequences for some wireless providers.

“The idea from my standpoint on the in-market exclusion is that we want to be building out the spectrum and putting it to use,” Martin stated. “So that if you’ve got access to spectrum and are just sitting on it, not using it and instead just riding on someone else’s network, we want you to be building out your own spectrum. So that’s why we had an in-market [exclusion]. … What has come back is there are several instances in which people don’t have access to the spectrum even though they bought the rights to it, or they just barely got the rights and it will take them a while to build. I think the commission is sympathetic to try to and adjust to those circumstances.”

Martin said he plans to soon circulate an order addressing some of the problems created by the in-market exclusion. Small, rural, mid-size and even one national mobile-phone operator — Sprint Nextel Corp. — insist in-market exclusion and roaming problems generally are becoming more acute with continued industry consolidation.

Reps. Charles Gonzalez (D-Texas) and Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) recently wrote Martin to raise concerns about the in-market roaming provision.

However, it’s unclear whether the FCC will go as far as many wireless providers want in addressing the issue.

“After a year of informing commissioners and members of Congress about the unintended consequences of the commission’s ‘in-market’ exclusion on tens of millions of existing wireless consumers, we are pleased to hear that the chairman intends to respond to the petitions for reconsideration filed by a number of carriers last year,” said Laurie Itkin, director of government affairs at Leap Wireless International Inc.

Itkin said the FCC has come to a critical juncture on roaming.

“Eliminating the ‘in-market’ exclusion and with it the potential of increased anti-competitive and discriminatory roaming practices before the commission considers the merger of Verizon Wireless and Alltel, is good public policy,” said Itkin.

Public comments on the $28 billion Verizon Wireless-Alltel Communications L.L.C. deal are due at the FCC late next week.

The FCC did not mandate automatic roaming for providers of wireless Internet services in last year’s decision, but the issue remains on the table. Wireless broadband carriers oppose an automatic roaming rule for broadband offerings, arguing doing so likely would impose unnecessary burdens that might compromise service to consumers.

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