Yesterday the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit held that the Federal Communications Commission was empowered under Title III of the Communications Act to promulgate its data roaming rule. The rule, however, does not impose any common carrier obligations on mobile Internet providers.
In 2007, the FCC mandated that mobile voice carriers offer roaming agreements to other carriers on a just, reasonable, and non-discriminatory basis. The FCC invoked Title II of the Communications Act reasoning that mobile voice providers have a common carrier obligation to provide roaming.
The 2007 mandate did not extend to mobile Internet or mobile data carriers that entered voluntarily into roaming agreements with other carriers for mobile data.
The FCC’s rationale for its rule was:
1. The mandate would promote access to seamless mobile data coverage nationwide;
2. The mandate balances incentives for new entrants and incumbents to deploy advanced networks across the country; and
3. The mandate would foster competition among multiple wireless providers
Verizon and AT&T opposed the rule, arguing that the rule was unnecessary given that carriers were already entering voluntary agreements for data roaming and that smaller carriers would have reduced incentive to build their own networks.
On the surface, investors in large carriers such as AT&T and Sprint should not see any additional losses from the ruling. The data roaming rule has been in place from 2007 and given that no new rules or divestitures resulted from the ruling, I see no additional costs of compliance to AT&T or Verizon due to this legal proceeding.
I don’t see how in the long run the ruling would benefit smaller carriers. If anything they may see increases in whatever charges they are assessed by the larger carriers as a result of negotiations in for future agreements, and they can thank the FCC’s competition posture for this.
As spectrum becomes harder to come by, larger carriers may feel compelled to pass on higher costs of handling additional traffic from smaller carriers. Delays by the FCC in releasing spectrum compounded by burdensome and lengthy scrutiny of license transfers will make a scarce resource more expensive. Smaller carriers will not be able to have their cake and eat it too.
For example, smaller carriers will argue that they do not have the capital to expand their networks on the one hand while on the other criticize any attempts by the FCC to ensure that spectrum goes to the carriers with the greatest economies of scale and the larger client base that would be negative impacted by a lack of sufficient spectrum. Either way, smaller carriers are going to have to absorb the costs of expanding traffic on the network either through sucking it up and deploying their own networks or paying increasing costs for roaming.
Smaller carriers may find themselves being more of a price taker in negotiations for roaming because all a larger carrier has to show is that the roaming charge being negotiated is commercially reasonable, a lower standard than the classic just and reasonable standard.
In the immediate term, the ruling may be deemed by Verizon and AT&T as a loss, but in the longer term, smaller carriers may have simply delayed the inevitable.