Editor’s Corner—The top 6 issues facing rural carriers


Mike Dano

AT&T and Verizon account for more than 70% of all wireless subscriptions in the United States today. But the carriers covering the remaining 30%—spread among Sprint, T-Mobile and the nation’s smaller regional carriers—are gathering next week in Orlando for the Competitive Carriers Association annual confab.

The issues facing these carriers are many. From roaming to 5G, the nation’s smaller wireless network operators today will need to react to a range of opportunities and challenges. Here are the six major issues this sector of the wireless market will need to address:

1. The Sprint and T-Mobile merger. This, of course, will be the metaphorical elephant in the room at next week’s CCA show. This merger not only promises to combine the nation’s third and fourth largest nationwide wireless network operators but will also affect the market for roaming by combining two of the industry’s most prominent roaming partners.

Some companies, like C Spire and others, have already come out against the merger. But others, including AT&T and Verizon, have remained silent.

If regulators allow Sprint and T-Mobile to merge, one of the most tangible effects will be on the CCA’s membership, which currently includes both Sprint and T-Mobile. Interestingly, CCA CEO Steven Berry said that T-Mobile executives will be attending CCA in force this year, partly to meet with the smaller regional wireless network operators that might serve as roaming partners for a merged Sprint/T-Mobile.

2. 5G. Although major nationwide wireless operators like AT&T and Verizon are rushing to deploy 5G network technology, smaller wireless network operators are also eyeing the space. (Sprint and T-Mobile, both members of CCA, are also planning significant 5G deployments, both apart from their proposed merger and as part of that transaction.)

Specifically, U.S. Cellular and C Spire have discussed their efforts to prepare for 5G, and other carriers will have to do so as well in order to continue to provide competitive services and roaming offerings.

Further, a surprising number of CCA’s members may well be hoping to obtain their 5G equipment from China’s Huawei, considering a large number of these small carriers recently acknowledged that the Chinese vendor supplies most of their equipment. Whether Huawei—currently under fire from regulators and lawmakers as a possible security threat—is ultimately able to remain a supplier to Tier 2 and 3 wireless network operators in the United States remains to be seen.

3. Spectrum auctions. CCA members from the big to the small will soon have to re-evaluate their spectrum needs. The FCC is gearing up to release a wide range of spectrum licenses, from 3.5 GHz to 28 GHz.

Moreover, those spectrum licenses won’t have any precedent: The 3.5 GHz CBRS band will likely rely on a completely new sharing architecture, while the FCC’s millimeter-wave spectrum auctions, scheduled to start in November, will offer spectrum that is still largely untested in the mobile realm.

This all means that small and regional wireless operators will have a lot of planning to do to determine whether and how they’ll participate in these spectrum allocations—and how much they might be willing to spend.

(Shameless self promotion: I’ll be talking about this very issue with executives from the likes of Ericsson, Samsung, CBNL, T-Mobile and C Spire on the morning of Oct. 2 in Orlando.)

4. Roaming. Roaming, of course, is a perennial issue for the wireless industry. And it’s especially critical to smaller wireless network operators that can’t rely on a nationwide wireless network to entice customers.

And at this year’s CCA, roaming is likely going to be a key issue as nationwide wireless network operators move toward a complete and total embrace of Voice over LTE (VoLTE) technology. Indeed, that’s exactly where Verizon is heading as it prepares to shutter its CDMA network next year; the company has already stopped activating 3G CDMA devices.

What that means for the nation’s smaller wireless network operators is that, if they want to continue to act as Verizon’s roaming partners, they must ensure that their VoLTE operations are ready for prime time—no small task.

5. Network build-outs. The CCA and its members have been vocal supporters of the FCC’s recent vote to speed up the deployment of small cells and other 5G densification equipment.

And at next week’s show, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr will likely make some of his first public comments since his successful effort to get the agency to approve those new rules.

The issue remains critical to operators of all sizes as they work to improve their network services in advance of 5G.

6. Competition. To its credit, the CCA has acknowledged the challenges faced by the nation’s smaller wireless network operators as they work to address the continued advancements of the market’s leaders. Those challenges range from staffing problems (it can be hard to find quality executives in rural areas) to the IoT (the sprawling, sparsely populated areas of the country are notoriously hard to cover).

Indeed, at its show next week the CCA will host Sharon Lessard of architecture, design, planning and consulting firm Gensler, who will discuss how smaller wireless network operators can better leverage their existing retail footprints. That’s likely going to be a key issue as companies like T-Mobile and AT&T work to expand their own retail operations.

If you’re in Orlando, I look forward to seeing you there. And make sure to stay tuned to FierceWireless for coverage of the show next week. — Mike | @mikeddano

"Editor's Corners" are opinion columns written by members of the FierceWireless editorial team. They are edited for balance and accuracy.