The pending merger of Verizon Wireless and Alltel has reignited debate on the “in-market” (or “home roaming”) exception to the FCC’s automatic roaming rule, as well as the availability of automatic roaming for data services not covered by the current rule (such as internet access, BlackBerry-type e-mail services, etc.) The merger has also raised questions regarding the future of Alltel’s existing roaming agreements, as well as its GSM roaming network in the western United States.CO

In August 2008, numerous regional and rural carriers and carrier groups filed petitions urging the FCC to resolve outstanding issues involving the in-market exception and data roaming before acting on the Verizon/Alltel merger. In the alternative, these petitioners urged the FCC to impose specific conditions requiring Verizon to provide automatic home and data roaming as a common carrier service following the merger, regardless of the requesting carrier’s spectrum usage rights.

The FCC was prepared to revise its automatic roaming rule in August 2008, but pulled a draft order from circulation in response to concerns that the revised rule did not adequately address the needs of regional and rural carriers. The FCC is now expected to act on revised roaming rules at about the same time as it votes on the Verizon/Alltel merger, which reports indicate could occur as soon as November 4, 2008. Although roaming advocates would prefer that the FCC address all of the outstanding roaming issues at once, including data roaming, it appears that the FCC will limit its upcoming order to revising the “in-market” exception.

With respect to Alltel’s GSM roaming-only network—which it acquired through its earlier merger with Western Wireless— several petitioners have requested that Verizon/Alltel either be required to sell this network to another operator (preferably not one of the nationwide carriers) or be required to continue operating this network as a GSM roaming network for a specified period of time.

Verizon recently told the FCC that it views the GSM roaming network as a successful business and that it “plans to maintain this business” and operate this network “indefinitely.” Verizon further stated that it will maintain the GSM network “to at least its current level of quality, including any necessary upgrades and investments,” although it does not plan to expand the network’s geographic coverage.