Rural Wireless Carriers Ready for a Fight

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- Rural cellular operators are prepared to aggressively lobby the Federal Communications Commission for mandatory data roaming, including a shot clock, if the larger wireless operators don't move quickly enough to find an industry solution, the CEO of the Rural Cellular Association said today.

RCA members also will push for mobile broadband to be a bigger part of the National Broadband Plan and future Universal Service Fund funding, and will fight handset exclusivity, Steven Berry, RCA CEO and executive director, told a B/OSS Conference crowd here today.

Broadband wireless represents the most cost-effective way to promote broadband availability and adoption in rural areas, Berry argued, but when rural carriers can't give their customers the ability to do data roaming and access to the latest in mobile handsets, adoption falls off.

"We can find a non-regulatory agreement on data roaming -- there is no reason fair and economically reasonable terms can't be arrived at by the industry," Berry said. "But if we can't find an industry solution, we will aggressively pursue a regulatory solution at the FCC."

The FCC has already "adopted a presumption for roaming" and the RCA will push for a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on the topic if need be, he said. The FCC could order a mandate, and the RCA would like to see that mandate come with a shot clock requiring data roaming to be put in place 120 days after it is requested.

Handset exclusivity also depresses rural broadband deployment, Berry said, when rural consumers see national ads for handsets that aren't available to them.

Rural wireless operators were disappointed that the National Broadband Plan and the current broadband stimulus funding put so much emphasis on fiber optics in rural areas. Rural consumers still stuck on dial-up don't need a gold-plated plan for broadband, Berry argued, but a practical plan that can be more rapidly and cost-effectively deployed.

"I know of one wireless proposal that would have brought 3G service to five states at $43 million, but it was rejected in favor of some middle-mile [fiber] projects, some of which cost over $10,000 per household [served]," Berry said. That's why any USF reform should include technology portability, enabling money to be invested in wireless networks as more consumers give up their wireline service, Berry said.

"The USF needs to support the most cost-efficient, cost-effective solutions to deploy broadband, and mobile broadband has a significant role to play," he said.

Finally, Berry argued that the plans AT&T and Verizon are making for use of their part of the 700MHz wireless spectrum could exclude rural operators from using the portion of that spectrum that they acquired, due to interoperability reasons. Once again, he said, the industry needs to come up with a solution on this issue or rural carriers will take their problems to the FCC.

— Carol Wilson, Chief Editor, Events, Light Reading

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