Rural carriers look beyond VoLTE, CCA chief says

As major U.S. operators roll out 5G services this year, smaller and rural carriers are not looking to be left behind on the next generation of wireless technology.

Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) members are convening in Rhode Island this week at the group’s annual convention, where CCA CEO Steven Berry says 5G-type issues, including policy, technology, business, and marketing will be a major focus.

While many smaller carriers are still upgrading networks to support voice over LTE (VoLTE), Berry told FierceWireless that about 90% of carriers are either exploring, planning to launch, or have already launched 5G-type products, a figure he called “pretty amazing.”

While it’s clear the likes of Sprint and T-Mobile are pushing ahead with 5G efforts, Berry pointed to smaller carriers like Bluegrass Cellular, Carolina West Wireless and Nex-Tech Wireless, which are all moving toward 5G-type services.

RELATED: 5G standalone will become ‘tipping point’ for VoLTE, analyst says

Earlier this month, Kansas-based Nex-Tech announced a deal with Ericsson to modernize the carrier’s network, launching VoLTE and Wi-Fi calling services using the telecom vendor’s cloud-based IMS solution, and enable the rollout of 600 MHz 5G capabilities in certain markets.

Carolina West in May announced a similar multi-year network deal with Ericsson to upgrade to VoLTE. The carrier said Ericsson would also provide 3GPP standards-based 5G New Radio (NR) hardware and software capabilities to enable Carolina West to deploy 5G when ready.

“Those carriers are moving quite swiftly to look beyond 4G LTE VoLTE,” said Berry. “I think that’s a really positive sign for the entire group.”

Bluegrass Cellular launched VoLTE services in 2018, as did U.S. Cellular, and Southern Linc.

Small and mid-sized carriers that want to remain practical roaming partners also need to ensure that their technology is compatible and interoperable with the largest carriers’ networks.

“They want to do it in a smart way and more cost-efficient way,” Berry said, adding that much of this year’s 5G focus will be on how to make the best decision and prepare existing 4G LTE VoLTE networks so they’re 5G-ready.

Spectrum and CCA collaboration with cable

Spectrum is another topic on rural carriers’ minds, including both millimeter wave and mid-band spectrum.

Many CCA members scooped up mmWave license at the FCC’s recent 24 GHz auction, and Berry noted carriers are also getting ready to vie for mid-band spectrum in the CBRS 3.5 GHz band at next year’s June auction.

RELATED: VoLTE spreads to Sprint and smaller carriers like Bluegrass, Southern Linc and others

When it comes to mmWave, the largest operators have been deploying mmWave 5G in densely populated urban areas, but CCA members are considering how to utilize the airwaves in rural America. Fixed wireless represents a major opportunity, according to Berry, but also advanced applications like precision agriculture and telehealth. However, he indicated that smaller and medium operators in particular need to be careful when deciding what technology paths they choose.

“[Smaller carriers] can’t afford to make the wrong decision,” Berry said. “They don’t have the revenue and reserves that say a larger carrier [who] might be able to have their lab test certain solutions out.”

So key to CCA members is finding out what solutions are working and how they can be monetized.

On the spectrum front, coveted C-band spectrum between 3.7-4.2 GHz is also of particular interest, according to Berry, because it provides greater capacity than low-band, but has better propagation characteristics than high-band spectrum.

Another organization interested in C-band is ACA Connects (formerly the American Cable Association), which represents smaller and rural cable operators. ACA Connects and CCA teamed in July on a plan proposal for repurposing 370 MHz of C-band spectrum. While Berry said the two organizations have been working closely for years, their tighter collaboration will be on display at the event this week.

RELATED: CCA, Charter, ACA present alternative for C-band

This year’s convention is the first time ACA will co-locate its regional member meeting with CCA’s convention, he said. ACA executives are participating in a keynote discussion about the synergies of converged technologies and cable specialists are joining educational and panel sessions.

“What we’re finding is on many of the issues that are pro-competition, ACA and CCA enjoy some of the same positions,” Berry said, noting that working together gives the organizations a more significant voice in the policy arena.

He also said the collaboration gives the groups’ members more opportunities and potentially a better working relationship, adding that many small cable companies have been providing wireless backhaul to carriers for several years. There are also shared learning opportunities in areas like fixed wireless.

“Many of the wireline or cable operators are looking to top off their service offering by having a wireless product,” Berry noted. “We can learn from them [cable operators] on how you get fiber out there to cell sites, to towers, or to small cells. They can learn from our members, case studies and otherwise, what are the most efficient and effective ways to deploy and actually utilize your spectrum.”

Additional topics up for discussion at CCA’s event (PDF) include cybersecurity--with Huawei presenting that seminar--supply chain issues, customer experience, and digital marketing, among others. The CCA Annual Convention is taking place in Providence, R.I. from September 16-18.