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Sprint Joins Forces With Rural America on LTE

Sarah Thomas

SAN ANTONIO — CCA Global Expo — Through a partnership that's been years in the making, Sprint is joining forces with the Competitive Carriers Association and NetAmerica Alliance to accelerate 4G LTE deployments -- and device availability -- in rural America and to help Sprint fill in the gaps of its own LTE network.

Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S), the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) and NetAmerica Alliance LLC , announced the partnership called Small Market Alliance for Rural Transformation (SMART) on Wednesday in San Antonio, making good on SoftBank Corp. CEO Masayoshi Son's promise to bring mobile broadband to underserved areas and fight the big two US carriers.

By teaming up, Sprint is allowing CCA and NetAmerica carrier members to roam on its LTE network through the CCA’s Data Services Hub, build on its 800 MHz and 1900 MHz spectrum for new entrants or those that want to expand, as well offer devices that include a band 12 chip to roam on the lower 700MHz spectrum, which many of them have access to. In return, Sprint gets to roam on the LTE networks they may build or already are building, plugging big rural holes in its own 4G network. (See NetAmerica, Ericsson Offer Rural 4G Alternative.)

"This is an enabler for rural carriers who wouldn’t otherwise build LTE, and it gives an experience for our customers who want LTE nationwide," Sprint CTO Stephen Bye told reporters in a briefing Wednesday.

Rural mobile operators have long said they can't effectively compete because of the expense of 4G build outs, the lack of desirable spectrum available to them, and little access to compatible devices big operators lock up in exclusive deals. With today's announcements, some of those dynamics should start to change. For one thing, both AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and now Sprint have committed to building devices with band 12 support in them. Sprint said its first devices will come to market in January of next year that will interoperate with the rural carriers' networks. (See AT&T Closes $1.9B Verizon Spectrum Buy.)

"We felt Sprint was the perfect partner," NetAmerica Chairman and CEO Roger Hutton said. "They have a need to move their LTE network into rural America, but they also have spectrum assets and scale that can be provided to rural carriers to create that ecosystem."

The program may sound similar to Verizon Wireless 's Rural America LTE program, but, as CCA President and CEO Steven Berry describes it, Sprint's program is a lot more generous. With Verizon's program, operators are required to use its spectrum, build to their specs, and have little flexibility or room to add their own capabilities. And, when Verizon updates its network, its rural partners are required to spend to be compliant, Berry said. (See Verizon LTE Plan Not a Rural Slam-Dunk and Signs of Momentum With Rural 4G.)

Berry continued:

    In ours, carriers can use their own spectrum, own assets, harmonize capabilities with a network perspective alignment, but they also get devices that will allow them to provide a nationwide experience. It's not necessarily the Sprint core. They can use their own core, join CCA's roaming hub, or directly connect to Sprint.

The group isn't announcing any participating carriers at launch, but they insist that interest is high. And, while the CCA's other large member, T-Mobile US Inc. , is not currently participating in this alliance, Berry strongly hinted it could soon be involved. The uncarrier is already a partner for GSM roaming and is "part of the discussions" on LTE roaming, especially now that they've purchased 700 MGHz spectrum from Verizon, giving them band 12 needs. (See T-Mobile: Channel-51 Interference a Non-Issue and T-Mobile Spends $2.4B on Verizon Spectrum .)

Softbank's Son is addressing the CCA Expo crowd Thursday morning, where he'll elaborate on the program. It is certainly groundbreaking for the rural community and might even lead some regulators to believe Sprint doesn't need to merge with T-Mobile to be truly competitive now that it can get nationwide coverage. Sprint isn't commenting on that line of logic, but such an announcement shows there is strength in numbers when it comes to taking on AT&T and Verizon Wireless. (See Big Fish in the CCA's Pond.)

"It's 100 versus two," Berry said. "One hundred-plus carriers trying to build the equivalent of a tier-one carrier with a larger footprint than the big two."

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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Sarah Thomas
Sarah Thomas,
User Rank: Blogger
3/27/2014 | 1:52:50 PM
Good deal
It'll be interesting to see how this places out and the business relationships in place to make it happen. It seems like a big deal to me and a much better deal for the rural providers than what Verizon was offering. 

I just keep coming back to, if Sprint is now 100+ carriers strong, why does it need T-Mobile? Doesn't this prove it can forge it alone??
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