The case for mandatory cellular roaming

by Colin Berkshire

Traditionally we have placed a very high priority on reliable communications in the event of an emergency. It’s been a national priority that we can not only call 911, but that we can reach each other if there is a dire need. We built our telecommunications backbone to survive floods, fire, and to always be there when we need it.

So coverage gaps and no-coverage areas is completely contrary to the long-standing policy of reliable communications. In fact, it used to be that a phone company had an obligation to serve 100% of all the territory it was licensed for. The concept of “universal service” meant that a home on a mountain side was entitled to life-safety communications as much as in a city.

Cellular service was at one point a luxury, and we relieved it of the duty to provide universal service because landline coverage served that task. But today landlines exist in under half of all homes and cellular has become our lifeline.

It is time for mandatory roaming in the US. There is absolutely not technical reason it can’t be done. It’s a trivial, basic concept.

If you re in an area with no cell coverage, then your cell company MUST allow you to roam to another company that does provide coverage. There should be no coverage gaps allowed where there are towers available.

Think about it: Should a cell company allow you to die because you cannot call 911, when there is actually a compatible signal available from a nearby tower? Of course not. But that is happening today.

Making roaming mandatory whenever another company can fill in a gap should be mandatory.

The cell companies could be allowed to maintain a tit-for-tat accounting so that traffic between companies would cancel out. (“I’ll take one of your customers and you take one of mine.”) If there was an imbalance, a fee could be charged to compensate.

The maps published by the cellular companies are bogus. The location of towers is a deeply kept secret (at least from the public.) So it is impossible for consumers to judge which carrier is better where. I will argue that network coverage choices are impossible, and irrelevant.

Every customer should be entitled to service. The carriers are using public airwaves, and they have a duty to provide service. If they cannot, they have a duty to roam their customers onto an available tower. It is good public policy, and it is a matter of life and death in some cases.

And, it will most likely cost no carrier and no customer anything extra to be allowed to roam when their primary carrier cannot provide coverage.

Cellular roaming should be mandatory.