AT&T is coming out swinging this afternoon over some material changes to Sprint's network in Oklahoma and Kansas that will see it shut down some of its own coverage in favor of roaming agreements with CDMA competitors. Specifically, AT&T cites two policy changes on the FCC's part that have enabled Sprint's move: first, the end of the Home Market Rule, which prevented carriers from establishing roaming agreements in markets where they owned their own spectrum; second, its decision last year to require carriers offer high-speed data roaming in addition to voice. It seems an odd thing for AT&T to get worked up over, save for a couple important things: one, the intent of the roaming rule was to allow rural carriers to compete on even ground, and two, it only stands to reason that a carrier holding spectrum should be required to exhaust it before turning to roaming agreements in a given market. As AT&T senior VP Bob Quinn says, "Sprint can now use other folks' networks rather than pony up its own investment dollars. Nice work if you can get it."

For its part, Sprint has been quick to reply:

It's disappointing, but not surprising, that AT&T wants to challenge a consumer's right to access email, the Internet and other mobile broadband services wherever they may travel in the U.S. Along with Verizon Wireless, AT&T is the only other wireless carrier in America which opposes the FCC's pro-consumer data roaming decision from last year.

The facts are that Sprint, as part of its Network Vision program, doubled its 2011 capital investment over 2010 to make tens of thousands of capacity upgrades, resulting in a better wireless experience for its customers. With these network investments, Sprint continues to offer consumers a better value than AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile.

So it pretty flatly counters AT&T's argument about scaling back infrastructure investment, but avoids the fact that the company — although a member of the Rural Cellular Association — is anything but a rural carrier, and not really the primary intended beneficiary of the FCC's expanded roaming regulations. AT&T notes that those regulations are going before the Washington DC Circuit Court of Appeals later this year, and it's "hopeful" that the court will "reject the FCC's market intervention." In reality, the most pro-consumer policy seems to lie somewhere between Sprint's view and AT&T's, which should come as no surprise.