sprintSprint wants to accelerate its 4G buildout and it’s turning to rural carriers to help them achieve it. Rural carriers will soon be able to partner with Sprint through their affiliations with the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) and the NetAmerica Alliance (NAA) for preferred roaming and network build-out and “sharing,” respectively.  The programs will offer a variety of tactics to get Sprint’s network greater reach across the U.S. including a central data hub roaming clearinghouse, access to a 4G device ecosystem, and assistance in building Sprint-certified 4G networks.

“Every American, regardless of where they live or work, should have access to high-speed mobile broadband,” said Masayoshi Son, Sprint chairman in a press release. “The programs developed by Sprint, CCA and the NetAmerica Alliance are a strong first step to improving availability of LTE service and providing greater device choice for Americans in rural areas. They are also a clear demonstration of Sprint’s long-term commitment to bring real competition to the wireless industry.”

CCA Relationship
The new Sprint Rural Roaming Preferred Provider Program will give CCA members access to a data services hub that facilitates data roaming across their mutual networks at preferred roaming rates.  When asked at a press briefing, CCA CEO Steven Berry said voice roaming is also included as a part of this agreement. Perhaps the more interesting feature of this program is the establishment of a device ecosystem. Access to popular and affordable 4G devices by rural carriers has long been a challenge.

Sprint says they plan to build a device ecosystem that will include “band 12” compatible chipsets for use in many rural carrier’s lower 700 MHz spectrum. Beginning in January 2015, Sprint says devices will become available and they intend to be the main driver of an ecosystem of devices that will support roaming across these different spectrum bands. During a press briefing, Sprint CTO Stephen Bye would not provide details of specific devices but said Sprint is committed to “building a device ecosystem” to support this program.  The success or failure of this program will probably hinge on the success or failure of this device ecosystem, given the importance of access to these devices.

“Today’s announcement presents an exciting pathway forward for competitive carriers, and I am delighted that Sprint and NetAmerica Alliance have committed to creating a competitive ecosystem in which all carriers can thrive,” said Steven K. Berry, President & CEO of CCA in a press release.

NetAmerica Alliance SMART Program
Sprint is also partnering with the NetAmerica Alliance (NAA), an alliance of rural carriers focused on 4G LTE operations, to launch the ambitious Small Market Alliance for Rural Transformation or SMART program.  SMART is a partnership between Sprint and NAA to facilitate the building of actual 4G LTE networks by NAA members for a “network sharing” arrangement. The goal is to help rural carriers build out rural 4G networks while also expanding the footprint of Sprint’s 4G network in a quicker and cheaper fashion.

“Our relationship with NetAmerica and delivering SMART is a win for Sprint, for our customers, for rural America, and for competition,” said Stephen Bye, chief technology officer at Sprint in a NetAmerica Alliance press release. “Through this shared network alliance, we are able to deliver a Sprint Vision-compliant network nationwide, faster and more cost effectively than if we built it by ourselves while simultaneously being a champion for competition in rural areas and across America.”

Under the SMART program, NAA members agree to build a Sprint Vision-compliant 4G LTE network for their local market, allowing Sprint customers to “share” that network when in territory.  In return, Sprint will lease them 800 MHz and 1900 MHZ spectrum, provide cash assistance for network build-out, access to the aforementioned device ecosystem, and allow the rural carrier’s customers to use the Sprint nationwide network. Sprint also says they will make devices and network equipment available to NAA members at Sprint’s cost.

A very interesting distinction here is the concept of “sharing.” According to Sprint and NAA, the SMART program does not include traditional roaming agreements. Rather, the networks are “shared” and can be used by either carrier’s customers with no charge for roaming.

“This is a landmark day for the rural carrier market and for the rural consumer,” said Roger Hutton, Chairman and CEO of NetAmerica in a Sprint press release. “Through the Sprint and NetAmerica shared network alliance, we are providing the 4G LTE mobile solution rural carriers so desperately need to compete and we are delivering on our promise to let rural consumers live and work where they choose without compromise.”

NAA will help facilitate their members’ network construction and operation, and will operate with Sprint a “SMART cloud” which houses the core 4G network elements for NAA members to operate a SMART network. The SMART program potentially extends the reach of NAA membership, because the program will be open to existing wireless carriers, but will also be open to wireline carriers who have an interest in launching a rural wireless network. A similar program by Verizon Wireless for rural 4G LTE has attracted non-wireless carriers to participate.

NAA members will also have the opportunity to utilize a NAA brand for 4G LTE called Bonfire, which has been developed by the alliance to build brand and marketing scale for smaller carriers. “Bonfire is a new national brand based on in-depth market research on rural America focused on what is important to them and how 4G mobility can allow them to live and work where they choose without compromise,” Chuck Harris, NetAmerica’s  EVP and Chief Development Officer tells me in an interview. Harris says the first SMART network should be in place by 1Q 2015, or possibly earlier.