Although it doesn’t have a chance of passing this Congress, particularly with the utter gridlock over the bail out, but I gotta give a shout out to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) for his targeted approach to solving the roaming problem in wireless. The proposed bill, H.R. 7000, says that any wireless provider that takes Universal Service Fund (USF) money needs to provide roaming to all other carriers “at just and reasonable rates, consistent with Sections 201 and 202” of the Communications Act. It does not require tariffing or rate regulation. It refers disputes over whether the terms are reasonable or the technology technologically compatible to the FCC, to handle under its well developed wireline procedures.
An entity can opt out of the program at any time by saying it no longer wants high-cost USF subsidy. But if you take government money, you need to provide roaming at just and reasonable rates.
And here is the kicker that makes it effective. The obligation to provide roaming applies to the entity accepting the USF, and any affiliates. In other words, if you have a rural subsidiary of one of the major carriers, then that carrier has to enter roaming agreements for its entire network. So if AT&T or Verizon are getting subsidies for “rural affiliate co.,” taking the money would require them to do roaming agreements on reasonable rates throughout their systems nationally. Don’t like it? Either stop taking public money or sell the rural carrier off to someone else who will do reasonable roaming.
I expect critics to say that this will mean wireless rural carriers will go under and the only thing to do is give wireless carriers money with no strings attached. I am dubious myself. Yes, the larger carriers may value their control over roaming to divest rural carriers. But there are plenty of mid-size carriers or small carriers willing to absorb these companies in exchange for federal subsidies who won’t mind making roaming agreements. Nor am I so convinced that the major carriers will actually decide they’d rather forgo the considerable subsidies they get now simply to preserve their control over roaming. Besides, if excluding parties from commercially reasonable roaming agreements is such an important element of the business model of major carriers, we have a bigger problem that needs to be more broadly addressed.
For too long, we’ve succumbed to the twin arguments that we must subsidize business to get policy goals, but we cannot actually demand anything in return because that would scare away the shy little beasties we are trying to coax, cajole and outright bribe into good behavior. I think it’s time to test that theory a bit. Although I’m doubtful the Waxman bill goes anywhere in the current Congress, I can hope that when Congress reconvenes in 2009 it will be reintroduced and given serious consideration.
Or instead, perhaps carriers will see the writing on the wall and try to solve this problem at the FCC before Congress reconvenes. Either way, its a good bill that nudges us closer to a more pro-competitive roaming policy.
Stay tuned . . . .