Sprint, T-Mobile and associations representing rural wireless carriers are asking the FCC to put action on data roaming on its April agenda. In its National Broadband Plan released almost a year ago, the FCC indicated a need to issue rules on data roaming to make customers’ wireless service more reliable and interoperable while preserving consumer choice among carriers.

The FCC already has adopted a voice roaming rule, but data service, which allows customers to email, text message and use apps like Twitter is the future.

Rural wireless carriers have to ensure their customers can still transmit and receive data over their phones when they leave their regular service area. That means reaching a data roaming agreement with AT&T or Verizon, depending on which technology is compatible with the particular smaller wireless carrier. Without a roaming agreement, a rural customer would have to carry (and pay for) one mobile phone to use where they live and another when they cross the boundary into an another town or region.

“This is a consumer issue because they expect their smart phone will work wherever they’re going to go,” Charles McKee of Sprint told reporters during a news conference Thursday.

Wireless carriers complained during the meeting that sometimes AT&T and Verizon would only offer a roaming agreement to a smaller carrier if they agreed to pay anti-competitive “above retail” rates. T-Mobile, for example, said it still didn’t have a 3G roaming agreement with AT&T.

What’s making data roaming such a critical issue now is that many of the voice roaming agreements will be soon be obsolete as everyone shifts to new technology to transmit voice calls as data in IP bitstreams.

What this means for rural carriers is they might spend money building out their high speed wireless broadband networks to more areas, only to find that they can’t really offer full service to customers if they can’t get AT&T or Verizon to enter into a roaming agreement with them.

Another situation further down the road is that the big growth will be in device-to-device wireless technology that customers use. So if someone has a pacemaker and a wireless heart monitor that checks the pacemaker and sends an alarm, the customer would want to be really sure their carrier has a solid roaming agreement.

“If your heart monitor is connected (wirelessly) to your pacemaker, you don’t want to worry whether it can communicate because of roaming,” McKee said.

Having an FCC rule on data roaming would give the independent wireless carriers legal recourse at the FCC if AT&T and Verizon refuse to enter into a roaming agreement that’s reasonable.

Now carriers including T-Mobile, Sprint, the Rural Telecommunications Group and the Rural Cellular Association are hoping leadership from the White House will mean action – and that more members of Congress will realize this is not just an issue a few wireless customers, but a broadband connectivity and jobs issue for whole regions of the country.

President Obama’s goal in the State of the Union address was to ensure high speed broadband available to 98 percent of Americans in 5 years. Without roaming agreements that won’t be possible.

While AT&T and Verizon are lobbying against data roaming, Senators from rural states, like Sens. Begich, Cochran and Kohl have written the FCC asking the FCC to adopt a data roaming order.

The President of the Rural Cellular Association, Steven Barry, told reporters Thursday that he has provided the FCC with a study showing that if the FCC issued a data roaming rule, it would create 117,000 jobs in the rural areas that don’t yet have data roaming.

McKee noted the unusual situation of being in a roomful of wireless carriers which generally oppose all federal regulation. But McKee said the FCC has a duty to take action to make mobile broadband competition possible and preserve consumer choice.

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