The Cure to the Common Carrier

by Colin Berkshire

It surprises me that cellular companies continue to maintain that they aren’t really common carriers and shouldn’t be subject to the rules of common carriers.

Common carriers are traditionally awarded a franchise area that they are allowed to serve. In exchange they are required to serve everybody within that territory. So if a customer lives on the side of a mountain the carrier is required to provide service. It doesn’t matter how remote or how costly. That is part of the deal of being a common carrier. It’s called “Universal Service”.

Naturally, companies like Verizon Wireless don’t want to be classified as full common carriers because it would mean that they need to provide cellular service in obscure places (like Downtown Seattle, or along all state highways.) So they argue that they are not really full common carriers.

But then they play the other side of the coin. They build towers in residential neighborhoods using special zoning exemptions that allow common carriers to build central offices and install towers in areas otherwise not allowed. Common carriers get special privileges under zoning laws, right-of-way laws, and interconnection rules.

Right now, companies like Verizon Wireless take full advantage of common carrier privileges (including receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from the Universal Service Fund) but they feel it isn’t necessary to actually offer service throughout their licensed areas.

There are vast areas where Verizon Wireless and others have exclusive radio frequency licenses that they quite simply are not using. They are essentially utilizing their licenses to preclude competition.

Common carriers are prohibited from using or selling customer data, such as who you are calling or what you are saying But the cellular carriers who are having it both ways sell and invade customer privacy while enjoying privileges open only to common carriers.

It’s time for them to follow the full set of common carrier rules. Or, they should forfeit their frequency licenses.

A free marketplace does not mean one where there is no regulation. A free marketplace is one which has a level playing-field.