Where the Carriers Roam

I'm a Sprint customer, but thanks to something called "automatic roaming," I can be reached in the DC Metro subway system, where only Verizon has service. Unfortunately, because of a recent FCC order, wireless customers like me might soon be harder to reach when on the move.

Wireless roaming agreements allow customers of one carrier to get service in areas where that carrier does not have its own network. Unfortunately, a gaping hole in some recent regulation means that an order meant to ensure that wireless customers get the best possible service might actually mean that some customers don’t get any service at all, even in their home region – especially if they’re customers of one of the smaller competitive carriers. This past week, we filed a letter urging the FCC to fix the problem and ensure continued customer access to wireless networks.

On August 7, 2007, the FCC issued an order which extended “automatic roaming” obligations to wireless carriers. This means that upon request and on a “reasonable, non-discriminatory basis,” one carrier has to allow another carrier’s customers to use its network. In other words, if I’m a Sprint customer traveling in an area where Sprint does not have service but Verizon does, Verizon has to provide service to me (although it can charge Sprint for it). Sounds good for me, right? Well it is – except for the “in-market exception,” which has proven to be a loophole large enough to drive a mid-size mobile carrier through.

The in-market exception says that in a “geographic location” where a carrier “holds a wireless license or spectrum usage rights,” there is no automatic roaming requirement. “Wait,” you say. “But what if my carrier hasn’t finished building its network or is blocked from building by former spectrum users who haven’t left yet?” I’m glad you asked, because the answer is, “your calls get dropped and your text messages don’t go through, even where they used to.” And therein lies the problem.

Larger carriers can leverage this rule against smaller carriers to either deny them access or charge unreasonable rates, as long as the small carrier has any spectrum rights at all in a given region. Customers of smaller carriers might lose the service they’ve long had in their home areas, and even emergency alerts might not be delivered until the customer returns to her newly-restricted coverage area. In effect, the large carriers, who have more resources and a head-start in building their networks, can close the door behind them, preventing the smaller competitors from acquiring customers and offering genuine competition. And let’s not forget that as you read this, the largest carriers are seeking to become larger and more powerful through mergers and acquisitions.

Do you know the exact boundaries of your wireless carrier’s signal? You probably don’t, because historically, if you traveled outside that coverage area but within the coverage area of a compatible wireless network, your call continued fine and your text messages went through without issue. And now, what you’ll see is phone calls and text messages that don’t go through.

In our letter, we’ve asked the FCC to eliminate this loophole and return us to a world where smaller carriers and customers are protected from unreasonable, discriminatory roaming practices. We’ll keep you updated right here.

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