The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is voting today on extending its mandatory intracountry roaming to data services, but when operators can just extend negotiations forever it hardly seems worth it.
Intracountry roaming – allowing a phone to connect to another network when out of the home network's coverage – has always been part of the US cellular experience. The US regulator has mandated that companies negotiate towards such agreements, for voice, since 2007, and while originally billed at high rates, roaming is now included in most tariffs. But despite that, many smaller operators still can't get coverage across the country, something the new rules on data seem unlikely to change.
CNET pulls up the town of Lewis, in Delaware, as an example. Lewis has perfectly good coverage with AT&T and Verizon, but not Sprint. The FCC rules mean the companies are obliged to negotiate on voice roaming, at "fair and reasonable rates", but not that they must ever actually reach an agreement, and so the citizens of Lewis are stuck with two operators.
In Europe we don't really have intracountry roaming – much to the annoyance of some of the emergency services. Mountain rescue teams often complain they have to use foreign SIM cards (which will roam to any UK network) to ensure coverage wherever they end up, but that means paying international roaming rates too.
The UK government has made noises about mandatory roaming, but introducing such a thing risks removing the competitive pressure to build networks. The UK's most-outlying islands are well-provided with cellular cover thanks to the competition to provide national coverage, but if all networks had the same coverage map, there would be no incentive to push into the far corners where there aren't enough people to make providing service profitable.
In another decade or so, the UK could be down to a pair of national networks, Three and Everything Everywhere are already sharing 3G infrastructure, and Vodafone and O2 are moving closer. Operators sharing their infrastructure with the competition won't be able to use coverage as a differentiator, and so have no incentive to extend it.
At that point some sort of universal service obligation might have to be considered, if we think that rural coverage is worth paying for, but we'll certainly have to make rules that demand more than companies sit around a table together every now and then, which is all that the FCC is asking of them. ®