wireless towerBi-partisan legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate yesterday has the potential to engender more partnerships between major wireless carriers and smaller rural wireless network operators. The legislation, to be known as the Rural Spectrum Accessibility Act, would give three-year extensions on spectrum licenses to wireless carriers that lease unused spectrum to rural and smaller carriers.

The legislation was introduced by Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) and Senator Deb Fischer (R-Nebraska).

Today’s Rural Programs
Two of the national carriers – Verizon and Sprint – already have formal programs through which they lease spectrum in rural areas to smaller network operators. The Verizon program, known as LTE in Rural America, is only available to carriers in areas where Verizon does not offer 3G service, while the Sprint program, known as SMART, is available more broadly.

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Programs from both companies give participants additional benefits beyond spectrum leases. Both programs offer rural carrier participants access to the same equipment the national carrier is using at competitive rates. Additionally the rural carriers’ customers can use the national carriers’ networks when traveling outside their home turf.

If the rural spectrum bill were to be adopted, it would appear that Verizon and Sprint would have an incentive to expand these programs and that other major carriers including AT&T and T-Mobile might be more likely to offer similar programs of their own. Alternatively major carriers might consider leasing spectrum without also providing the additional benefits included with today’s rural programs.

Rural Spectrum Bill Prognosis
Without having read the bill, I can’t say whether it contains any provisions that are likely to encounter opposition. But on the surface it would appear to have wide appeal, as long as the large carriers don’t have to lease the spectrum to smaller carriers unless they want to.

What’s not clear is whether a three-year extension on a spectrum license would be a sufficient motivator for the major carriers.

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