Wireless TowerThe Competitive Carriers Association is meeting this week in New Orleans and a regional wireless carrier panel this morning urged the industry not to make the same mistakes with the upcoming 600 MHz spectrum auction that were made with the past 700 Mhz auctions. Chief executives of iWireless (Craven Shumaker), nTelos (James Hyde), ATN (Michael Prior), and Bluegrass Cellular (Ron Smith), all were in agreement – learn from the current state of the 700 Mhz band, which is used extensively for 4G LTE services.

Those mistakes, they argue, have resulted in a lack of device interoperability, 4G LTE roaming disarray, and a discombobulated ecosystem. We’ve reported on these issues before and they do create significant challenges, especially for regional and rural wireless carriers who, like their national carrier cousins, also need robust 4G networks to remain competitive. “This craving for connectivity everywhere obliges us all,” commented Hyde of nTelos.

“To compete as a regional carrier, you have to offer nationwide services”, said Smith of Bluegrass Cellular. Such thinking led Bluegrass to join the Verizon LTE in Rural America program, in which Verizon has partnered with several rural carriers to build out a nationwide 4G LTE network, allowing their respective customers to roam on each other’s network.

But poor planning by regulators has led to a fractured 4G LTE ecosystem, where national carriers Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint are basically building their own 4G “fiefdoms,” and don’t interoperate with each other or with the many smaller regional and rural wireless carriers across the country. This hits the smaller carriers particularly hard, impacting their ability to get the most advanced handsets and to offer the broadest coverage possible.

The FCC is working with television broadcasters to free up the next generation of 4G spectrum, which falls in the 600 Mhz band. Broadcasters control this spectrum, but much of it has been freed up, thanks to the digital TV transition. This process has been come to be known as the so called “voluntary auction.’ There are many details to be worked out and the actual rules and timing of the auction have not been fully defined yet.

“It’s extraordinarily important. 600 Mhz is beachfront property,” said Smith of Bluegrass Cellular. All of the panel’s carriers echoed that view and implored regulators to set up rules that will ensure the same issues we see today with 700 Mhz spectrum do not get repeated with this new spectrum.  They all advocated smaller market areas for the auctions, which would allow smaller carriers to gain spectrum. Interoperability should also be mandated, they argued.

The Department of Justice recently added their opinion to this debate, urging the FCC to ensure that this spectrum be allocated in a fashion that doesn’t allow one or two carriers to control it. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that the people in Washington know what’s going on. The question is what are they going to do,” said Prior of ATN.

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