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Big Fish in the CCA's Pond

Sarah Thomas
3/25/2014
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SAN ANTONIO -- CCA Global Expo -- This week, more than 100 rural and regional wireless operators are gathering in San Antonio to discuss some of the wireless issues that are unique to their size and geographies. But two of the CCA's largest members, Sprint and T-Mobile, will also be in attendance, balancing their desire to be the small guys' advocate with a desire to merge to grow larger themselves.

The Competitive Carrier Association (CCA) was founded in 1992 to represent the interest of nine rural telcos, tackling issues such as access to spectrum, access to devices and networks, universal service fund (USF) reform, and Next-Generation 911 solutions. It's since grown to more than 100 members and welcomed larger players T-Mobile US Inc. , Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S), and by extension, parent SoftBank Corp. in the last two years. (See LTE: The Bridge to the Digital Divide .)

It creates an interesting dynamic for the industry association. On the one hand, Sprint and T-Mobile are fighting the good fight alongside all the regional carriers against the big two, Verizon Wireless and AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T). They have some of the same challenges as well: deploying nationwide LTE networks, getting top-tier handsets out the gate, and affording prime spectrum holdings. They've also been a boon to their smaller peers, supporting LTE roaming and interoperability in 700 MHz and rallying against the "duopoly" of the big two. (See FCC: Act Now as Wireless Duopoly Looms and T-Mobile Spends $2.4B on Verizon Spectrum .)

I just wonder how this protective big brother role might change if the two companies merge, as they've been reportedly plotting a way to do business. Would they still be friends to the weaker telcos or become "bullies" as well? (See Is SoftBank Ready to Reunite With Legere?, Tough Road Ahead for Sprint/T-Mobile?, and Report: SoftBank Preps $19B Bid for T-Mobile.)

Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son will address the CCA crowd on Thursday morning, and while I don't think he'll address this directly, I imagine it'll be an undertone of his speech as it was when he addressed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) earlier this month. I'm just not sure if that's a message that would be received well amongst this crowd, which would face an even tougher road without the support of at least two out of four of the big guys. It's a delicate balance to strike. (See SoftBank's Son Keeps Sprint on Short Leash.)

For its part, the CCA says Sprint and T-Mobile have been a great addition to the organization, where each carrier gets one vote regardless of their size. Lucy Tutwiler, the CCA's VP of communications, says the pair has been very involved in the organization's advocacy issues, especially the upcoming broadcast auctions. Both are also sponsoring a session at the show -- Sprint on WiFi integration and T-Mobile on the broadcast incentive auctions.

Light Reading is in San Antonio for the show this week. Check back to the site for coverage of the show's big themes, news from carriers big and small, and, let's be honest, probably some snaps of the Alamo and any carrier execs we can find sporting cowboy boots on the show floor.

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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Sarah Thomas
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Sarah Thomas,
User Rank: Blogger
3/25/2014 | 4:59:49 PM
Re: Both ends of the stick
Good call, Ritch. I'll keep my ears open. I did ask Lucy from the CCA what she thought about a merger possibility, and she, of course, couldn't comment, but said they're all eagerly watching to see what it would mean for their members as well.
RitchBlasi
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RitchBlasi,
User Rank: Light Sabre
3/25/2014 | 2:22:21 PM
Both ends of the stick
You might also want to consider some of the side conversations at the CCA event too.  Like:

If you support the merger we'll put a good word in with Softbank and extend our roaming agreements at lower rates and give you access to more devices.

Maybe we can throw you some of the extra spectrum (in your markets) we'll have to divest.

Would you be interested in being purchased? 

And others.

If the merger doesn't go through, this conference might be moret about potential deal-making in select markets.  The way Softbank is willing to throw money around the deep pockets that were meant for a T-Mo buy could foster a bunch of smaller sales.
Sarah Thomas
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Sarah Thomas,
User Rank: Blogger
3/25/2014 | 9:01:03 AM
Size matters
I think being in the CCA has been mutually beneficial for the CCA, Sprint and T-Mobile so far. The carriers can play the small carrier card that they can't compete against the big two and the CCA benefits from their size and advocacy on their behalf. I just wonder if that will change if the two merge. Even if they don't change their uncarrier and unlimited ways, their size alone will make them more like the big two and less like the small 100.
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