Smaller wireless carriers have experienced significant difficulties obtaining the most competitive consumer devices in recent years, and associations representing those carriers have been trying hard to change that through a range of policy initiatives. Meanwhile, the Associated Carrier Group is taking a different approach to addressing the same issue. The group, founded in 2005, coordinates interactions between device suppliers and its 37 member companies, all of whom are Tier 2 and 3 wireless carriers.

“We are constantly trying to ensure members have access to products at the time they are relevant to the marketplace . . . at the time of launch,” said Russ Lipinski, president and executive director for ACG, in an interview. “When we’re truly the tail and not the dog, we have to do everything we can.”

ACG started with just five member companies and has been adding carriers ever since – although it has lost a few as a result of mergers. Among the organization’s largest members are Cox Communications, C Spire and Ntelos. C Spire’s involvement is particularly noteworthy as the company recently sued AT&T, arguing that the larger carrier manipulated the wireless standards process to create a separate spectrum band for itself, thereby making it more difficult for smaller carriers operating in a different band to obtain competitive devices.

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Smaller ACG members include companies such as Nex-Tech Wireless, Pioneer CellularThumb Cellular and others that will be familiar to many Telecompetitor readers.

When I asked Lipinski to point to any successes ACG has had, he said he was “reluctant to say it that way.”

Success, he said, “would be launching at the same time” as the nation’s largest carriers and with “the exact same products.”

Lipinski is “hopeful” that ACG will reach success measured by that yardstick but it’s not there yet.

The organization’s approach, Lipinski said, is to “attempt to reduce development time for OEM partners by testing [devices] and giving feedback at the same time across all of our members.” That approach, he said, “allows OEMS to more easily move their development staffs from Product A to Product B.”

Without ACG, each carrier would be handling that task on its own, requiring the manufacturer to make development staff available to answer the same questions for multiple carriers, Lipinski explained – and some manufacturers apparently see value in that approach. One carrier ACG doesn’t work with, however, is Apple.

“Apple doesn’t work with any intermediate companies [such as] buying groups,” Lipinski said. “They only work one-on-one with a carrier.”

He noted that some ACG members have been able to obtain popular wireless devices from Apple by working directly with Apple. He added, however, that Apple “only works with individual carriers of their own choosing.”

The Apple/ Samsung decision
Apple’s strong position in the smartphone market appears even stronger as a result of the company’s new victory over Samsung in a patent dispute. And some industry observers have speculated that the decision does not bode well for rival operating system Android, with a Wall Street Journal editorial going so far as to say that Apple would have preferred to sue Android’s creator Google, but sued Android-user Samsung instead in the belief that public sympathy would be stronger against an offshore manufacturer.

This would seem to be bad news for smaller wireless carriers, who tend to rely more heavily on Android because of the difficulties some of the carriers have had obtaining devices from Apple. And when I asked Lipinski for his take on the court decision, he said, “If it were to result in the stoppage of Android, it would be incredibly challenging to overcome.”

He declined to speculate on whether this was likely to actually happen, but he did say he didn’t think Google will “go away quietly.”

He noted that in some previous wireless patent disputes, the injured party has resolved the issue by obtaining a licensing agreement with the other party and that might be an outcome in this case.

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13 thoughts on “Associated Carrier Group Seeks Better Wireless Devices for Small Carriers

  1. Pioneer Cellular launched their LTE system way back in April. Since then two other participants in Verizon's LTE in Rural America program have launched, yet NONE of these carriers have any phones to sell to customers to use on these new networks. None! Therefore, the only people able to use phones on these new networks are Verizon's customers with their LTE-capable phones.

    This is a completely ridiculous situation. These are not systems using the spectrum the phone manufacturers refuse to make for in other frequency bands, these carriers use Verizon's spectrum where phones for it are freely available, just not to these smaller carriers for some wild reason. Pioneer said some phones weren't available because Verizon's models carry Verizon-specific features. Fine, just slap a stock Android OS onto the phone an let Pioneer and these others sell it! Hopefully a new model iPhone with LTE capability will break this logjam since the iPhone does not have any carrier-specific "special feature (i.e. crapware)" software on it.

    1. Just an FYI.. Cellcom is launching the RAZR MAXX and the HTC Desire 4G LTE(Droid Incredible 4G LTE). I would assume the other 2 carries in the rural LTE program have these or similar phones coming.

      1. "Better than nothing" news I guess. The Desire launched in 2010, a mid-range phone now ancient in cellphone terms, maybe it is being rev-ed or something, and hopefully with the current Android OS. The RAZR MAXX is a much more recent phone at least, launched in January of this year. Way too much to hope for to see an HTC One or Galaxy S3 without all the crapware the major carriers load them down with. Apple doesn't allow crapware, only the pure experience, that's why I'm still holding out for that, and on a "latest technology" phone.

  2. Don't hold your breath on the iPhone LTE. Apple and the big carriers will have that one locked up too for a while. Apple has all the gold right now, so they make the rules. Unless you are going to commit to millions of units sales, they're not interested.No small carrier, or small carrier consortium, can even begin to meet those requirements.

    1. Actually, there are a large number of small carriers that have the iPhone now. My guess is that West Central Wireless measures their subscriber count in the tens of thousands, if that, but they have the iPhoe up to and including the 4S. They got it about the same time as GCI and ACS did in Alaska.

  3. Pioneer, Cellcom, and Bluegrass, the current LTE in Rural America systems operating and referenced above, all currently carry the iPhone, so there is hope that a new model LTE-capable iPhone would be usable on those systems.

    1. They are carrying the 3G version iPhone, which only became available for them after years on the tier 1 carriers. It's nice to dream, but the 4G LTE iPhone isn't coming to any rural carriers anytime soon. Customers may be able to somehow get an unlocked 4G iPhone and use it on those systems, but the rural carriers themselves won't get access for some time.

      1. I stopped by the Pioneer home office today to pay my bill, and was told that they will have the new iPhone when Apple launches it. The clerk didn't know about its capabilities, just that they will have it for sale. I guess Apple could provide Pioneer, Cellcom, and Bluegrass Cellular an iPhone 5 that has the LTE function disabled, but that would go over like a HUGE lead balloon. They have spent millions of dollars building these brand new LTE systems and I don't see them putting up with having a key function of a new phone locked out.

        1. Unfortunately for you, that clerk is mis-informed. Don't hold your breath for Pioneer or any small carrier getting the 4G iPhone. At least not anytime soon.

          1. MIs-informed even though the company President's office is just 10 feet away and she said he told her that because she asked him about it? Interesting. She asked because she was getting questions from customers about the new iPhone and LTE. I'm supposed to now believe the President of Pioneer Telephone Cooperative/Pioneer Cellular doesn't know what he's talking about?

  4. ggore is correct, these and many other small cellular operators already offer the iPhone, so there should be hope a new model might break this logjam open. Pioneer has offered the iPhone here for a few months now and it's been a huge success and I can't imagine Pioneer allowing Apple to block LTE access due to their partnership with Verizon in the LTE in Rural America program.

    1. Are you serious – "Pioneer allowing Apple to block LTE access due to their partnership with Verizon"
      With all due respect, Pioneer doesn't have any say in this. Apple dictates what happens with the iPhone, and the only way any carrier gets access to the 4G LTE version is to commit to millions of units sales.

      Like I said before, it's nice to dream.

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