* Divided FCC mandates mobile data roaming agreements
* AT&T views rule as ploy to bring down roaming prices
By Jasmin Melvin
WASHINGTON, April 7 U.S. regulators on Thursday
adopted data roaming rules that would allow smartphones to
access the Internet in areas across the country not covered by
their wireless carrier.
The rules set by the Federal Communications Commission in a
3-2 vote would force wireless carriers like AT&T Inc (T.N) and
Verizon Wireless to offer "reasonable" roaming rates.
"Mobile providers must be able to offer nationwide voice
and data plans to have any chance of competing in today's
market," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said at the agency's
But evidence collected from wireless carriers "shows that
roaming deals are simply not being widely offered on
commercially reasonable terms," Genachowski added.
Sprint Nextel (S.N), MetroPCS Communications Inc PCS.N
and other smaller carriers have lobbied for such rules to
ensure they can reach roaming agreements vital to staying
competitive as consumers want the ability to use their phones
everywhere they go.
The FCC found that Verizon Wireless and AT&T had engaged in
few data roaming agreements on their 3G networks, and declined
to commit to reaching agreements on the new 4G LTE networks
both are deploying.
AT&T's proposed $39 billion bid for Deutsche Telekom AG's
(DTEGn.DE) T-Mobile USA would concentrate 80 percent of U.S.
wireless contract customers in just two companies --
AT&T/T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless, a joint venture of Verizon
Communications (VZ.N) and Vodafone Group Plc (VOD.L).
"With AT&T's proposed acquisition of T-Mobile and the
corresponding threat it poses to continued wireless
competition, it is absolutely critical that the FCC take steps
to promote competition and level the playing field," said Vonya
McCann, Sprint's senior vice president of government affairs.
Smaller and rural carriers have pushed for data roaming
rules to prevent the largest wireless carriers from shutting
them out of nationwide broadband connectivity.
Republican Commissioners Robert McDowell and Meredith
Attwell Baker voted against the measure, arguing that they
believe the rules impose common carrier obligations.
Their Democrat counterparts disagreed.
"It's the opposite of common carriage because the framework
relies on individualized, case-by-case market deals that will
vary," Genachowski told reporters during a press conference
after the open meeting.
Under the rules, wireless carriers would be free to
negotiate the terms of the agreements, and could institute
safeguards to prevent congestion or harm to their networks from
Roaming negotiations that stall can be brought to the FCC
for resolution on a case-by-case basis.
The FCC already mandates roaming for voice services so
wireless customers can make calls when outside of their
carrier's service area. The rules adopted on Thursday extend
this measure to mobile data services given the boom in wireless
devices such as Apple Inc's (AAPL.O) iPhone.
(Reporting by Jasmin Melvin, editing by Dave Zimmerman)