FCC inquiries could spawn new wireless regulations

Genachowski has already said he wants to examine whether such deals are unfair to rural customers who live in places not served by the big wireless companies. With the issue in the spotlight, the industry has started to change its behavior. Verizon Wireless told several top lawmakers last month that it would limit future handset exclusivity deals to six months, letting carriers with up to 500,000 subscribers sell its handsets after that period.

The FCC is also looking at roaming, which lets wireless carriers use competitors' voice networks in places where they do not offer their own service.

Under an "in-market" exception to these rules, wireless carriers can deny roaming agreements to rivals in places where those rivals already own wireless spectrum but have not built out networks. Kelsey and other consumer advocates would like the exception lifted.

AT&T and Verizon Wireless counter that after investing billions of dollars in their networks, they should not be forced to share their systems with competitors that have not made such investments.

Verizon said last month, however, that it would support a rule requiring in-market roaming agreements that last no more than two years.

Another FCC inquiry is likely to focus on the "special access regulations" that guarantee carriers access to the vital back-haul lines that connect wireless towers to broader telecommunications networks. Independent carriers argue that they pay excessive prices for this access because much of the critical network infrastructure is owned by landline telephone companies such as AT&T and Verizon, which also have wireless arms.

Christopher Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association, said the industry welcomes the FCC inquiries as a chance to educate policymakers on how competitive the wireless industry is. After all, he said, while much of the attention has focused on the four largest carriers, there are many smaller companies, such as Leap Wireless International and MetroPCS Communications.

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