Today, regional carriers are one big step closer to being able to roam freely on larger networks while building out their own LTE device catalog. AT&T has announced that it will start working towards making its 700MHz spectrum interoperable, moving forward in a long-running dispute about large carriers' responsibility to share their networks. In a statement, the company promises to invest "considerable time and resources" in an infrastructure change that will let its LTE network support phones designed for for smaller carriers, while also offering more devices that support those carriers' networks.
Regional carriers like US Cellular have been asking for interoperability options for years, saying that the current system makes it difficult to offer roaming and limits the devices they can support. While many networks use the 700MHz spectrum for LTE, it's divided into multiple bands that require different hardware. For AT&T, that's not a problem. For smaller carriers, though, technical problems have persisted even as courts have guaranteed fair roaming prices. And the problem isn't just roaming. LTE phones and tablets are made with big carriers in mind, so many of them won't work on regional LTE bands at all. AT&T has said it will help fix this problem by working with manufacturers on new devices that support both networks, though no timeline is given.
It's certainly a helpful move, but it wouldn't have happened without heavy pressure from the FCC. AT&T has long resisted interoperability rules, said that changes could cause interference in its networks. "Such mandates would be an unprecedented regulatory intrusion into a carrier's right to manage network and device deployment in a manner best suited to serve its customers," it wrote in March of 2012, after the FCC launched an official investigation of the issue. It's continued to be firmly against legal intervention, but this voluntary deal will hopefully satisfy all parties involved. The FCC has praised the decision, with acting chairwoman Mignon Clyburn commending AT&T and others for resolving the issue "after many frustrating years."