It’s Time to Require Mandatory Roaming

by Colin Berkshire

COVID-19 has painfully made me aware of howe terrible the US Cellular network is.

It is frustrating beyond polite words to have garbled text, “Call Failed” and one-way audio when conducting business. Yet, this happens to me every day. I think we’re growing numb to it, but that doesn’t make it acceptable.

In past years I have traveled a lot, especially to Asia. I cannot remember any time in the past five years when I have had garbled audio or a disconnected call. Whether I am in rural Vietnam or Thailand or Japan or China, cellular service just works. Beyond the lack of garbled audio, the audio is more clear, because the US cellular is unique in using 6kb compression…half the bitrate of most other countries. My Verizon and my wife’s T-Mobile have speeds that are lethargic…so slow as to typically impact watching You Tube or other video. When in Asia I never see slow speeds…speeds of 100 megabits and up is the norm. And, no, it doesn’t take 5G to deliver 100 megabit speeds to every phone.

So what’s wrong with the US cellular system?

The basic problem in the US is that the carriers have no incentive to provide good service. How many more customers will a carrier get if they have half as many dropped calls, or if their speeds are 2x as fast? Probably none. In the de-regulated US market, there are no minimum coverage standards, no reporting requirements for percentage of garbled calls. Cellular companies intentionally hide their tower locations so that you can’t see which company has a tower close to you (and so you can’t see how very few towers they actually have.)

There is a simple solution:

Require that cellular carriers allow all of their customers to roam to the tower with the strongest signal, regardless of who owns the tower.

It should be a matter of national priority that people can reliably reach 911, and that all phone calls go through reliably. Telecommunications is a nationally vital infrastructure, and having it operate the best in the world should be a national goal.

Once upon a time there were technical reasons why a Verizon phone couldn’t roam onto an AT&T tower. But those reasons are all gone now. Today, there is no technical reason why any phone cannot connect to any tower from any carrier. 4G is 4G is 4G.

Would it be fair to require mandatory roaming?

Yes. There is a 100-year old tradition and precedent in the telecommunications industry of requiring full interconnection and settlement. It was used throughout our country’s development. It works like this:

Each carrier maintains an accounting of how much traffic is put onto their network by each other carrier’s customers. You then cancel out an reciprocal usage so that 1GB from AT&T to T-Mobile cancels out 1GB from T-Mobile to AT&T. Finally, what you have is the “imbalance” amount. There is an established wholesale rate for settling this imbalance, such as $1 per gigabyte. This fairly compensates every carrier for the use of their towers. It also encourages carriers to build out their networks both to avoid paying “settlement amounts” and also to collect “settlement amounts” in underserved areas.

This would establish competition both at the retail level to gain customers and also at the tower-level to serve customers.

Most importantly: It would provide the American Public with the best possible telecommunications service.