NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to require big wireless carriers Verizon ( VZ - Get Report) and AT&T ( T - Get Report) to open their data networks to regional operators in areas where the smaller players don't have their own systems.

The FCC hopes the move, intended to counter consolidation in an industry dominated by AT&T and Verizon, will drive more competition in wireless broadband as consumers around the country increasingly access the Internet through data-sucking mobile devices.

"The framework we adopt today will spur investment in mobile broadband and spur competition," said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, during a live stream of the commission's meeting Thursday.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski

The 3-2 vote forces large carriers to enter data roaming contracts with smaller carriers, essentially allowing their customers to access the Internet in areas where the carrier doesn't have coverage. The FCC's vote comes in response to petitions filed by many of these smaller firms, who say the new rule is necessary to ensure that large carriers offer fair and affordable roaming terms.

"Cricket applauds the Commission's vote in support of a data roaming obligation, which we believe will help ensure that wireless customers have access to data services throughout the nation," said Doug Hutcheson, president and CEO of Cricket Communications, in a statement. Cricket is a subsidiary of Leap Wireless International ( LEAP), a San Diego-based wireless carrier that operates in 35 states.

Hutcheson continued: "With the increasing popularity of smartphones and the convergence of voice and data services, consumers should be free from worry that their devices might not work for a particular application depending on where in the United States they happen to be."

The ruling, of course, faces strong opposition from Verizon and AT&T, who point out that they already hold partnerships with many regional carriers across the country.

"Roaming agreements for both voice and data are in place throughout the country, and were reached through normal commercial negotiations," said Bob Quinn, AT&T Chief Privacy Officer and senior VP of Federal Regulatory, in a prepared statement.

"Today's action represents a new level of unwarranted government intervention in the wireless marketplace," Verizon said in an e-mailed statement. "By forcing carriers that have invested in wireless infrastructure to make those networks available to competitors that avoid this investment, at a price ultimately determined by the FCC, today's order discourages network investment in less profitable areas."

Verizon also said the FCC does not have the authority to impose such rules on data services, since wireless broadband services are regulated differently from wireless voice services.

The FCC's decision follows a long, contentious period between the government and wireless market leaders, who recently have challenged federal authorities on new Net neutrality rules.

Following the vote, Verizon shares were slipping 12 cents to $37.73, and AT&T's were down 3 cents to $30.50.

-- Written by Maggie Overfelt in New York.

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