As of June 2014 AT&T, the second largest provider of mobile communications in the US, announced it would acquire the subscribers, spectrum, and assets of Plateau Wireless, which provides wireless coverage across eastern New Mexico and west Texas. While the deal has not been approved by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) T-Mobile recently filed a complaint with the commission urging them to oblige AT&T to honor T-Mobile's existing roaming agreement with Plateau Wireless. According to T-Mobile, the longstanding roaming agreement it has with Plateau Wireless is much more favorable than AT&T's roaming practices in Plateau's service area. Striking a new deal with AT&T would "raise T-Mobile's costs and degrade its customers' experience, harming competition," which, T-Mobile claims, abuses AT&T's market position.
In general, "roaming" refers to the ability of a cellular device to automatically access the network of another operator as the customer moves outside of their operator's area of service. No wireless company has complete coverage of an entire geographical area; thus, as cellular users move, which they tend to do, they could potentially lose service. Roaming gives users the ability to travel beyond their operator's transmitter range without losing service if another operator is available. Roaming agreements between operators are obviously great for consumers, nobody likes dropping calls or losing access to data mid-stream. They can also be great for operators if they decide to play nice with each other and keep roaming costs appropriate. Where an operator lacks coverage they can simply hand off their users traffic to an operator providing service, which prevents them from having to set up costly towers and infrastructure. Low roaming costs would also incentivize operators to expand coverage to unserved areas rather than duplicate coverage in densely populated areas; so long as their users can get adequate service from another operator at a reasonable price it makes sense to focus building infrastructure in unserved areas.
T-Mobile's recent complaint coincides with a filing made by T-Mobile and small carriers last year that asked the FCC to establish what constitutes a "commercially reasonable" data roaming agreement. AT&T and Verizon, the market leaders in the US wireless industry, opposed T-Mobile, stating that a new ruling would undermine the FCC's 2011 data roaming order. The FCC ruled against Verizon and AT&T's appeal. While the rules issued in 2011 will remain the same the FCC agreed with T-Mobile's suggested benchmarks for establishing the commercial reasonableness of a data roaming agreement: retail rates, international roaming rates, MVNO/resale rates, and roaming rates charged by other providers. Based on the recent filing, T-Mobile appears to be trying to capitalize on the favorable FCC ruling it received regarding roaming agreements last year. In the US market, Verizon and AT&T each have over 120 million subscribers while the next largest, Sprint and T-Mobile, each have 55 million subscribers; it is entirely plausible that Verizon and AT&T would hamper the competitiveness of their smaller rivals with unfair roaming agreements if given the opportunity.