Summary:

The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to require big wireless carriers to share their data networks with smaller competitors,…

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski
photo: AP / Harry Hamburg

The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to require big wireless carriers to share their data networks with smaller competitors, forcing them to allow data roaming the same way they are required to offer voice roaming.

The vote was 3-2 in favor of the measure, split along party lines with Democrats, including chairman Julius Genachowski, approving the new rules. According to Bloomberg, Genachowski felt that carriers were not cutting enough sharing deals under the current rules and that by taking action the FCC could ensure more competition among wireless carriers.

Naturally, the big carriers don’t necessarily agree. “Today’s action represents a new level of unwarranted government intervention in the wireless marketplace. By forcing carriers that have invested in wireless infrastructure to make those networks available to competitors that avoid this investment, at a price ultimately determined by the FCC, today’s order discourages network investment in less profitable areas,” Verizon said in a statement after the final vote was made public. AT&T (NYSE: T) also opposed the proposed rules.

More data roaming agreements would theoretically allow data network connections to reach more people, but if Verizon and AT&T follow through on their veiled threat to avoid investing in rural areas generally served by smaller carriers, that might not be the case. AT&T has used rural network expansion as a key talking point in arguments that its $39 billion proposed acquisition of T-Mobile should be approved, in that it will allow the combined carriers to bring mobile broadband to 95 percent of the U.S.

However, just because the FCC requires deals to be struck doesn’t mean they always come to pass, as CNET notes. The exact language calls for deals to be cut on “commercially reasonable terms,” and different companies can have very different ideas on what is commercially reasonable.

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