May 7, 2015 — I had the honor of moderating a panel on “The Changing Economics of the Rural Broadband Build Out” at last week’s Wireless Infrastructure Show. I found it helpful to begin the conversation with a look at how rural cellular operators make economic sense of providing the 4G services that make LTE towers a necessity.
Nationwide LTE roaming agreements with the major carriers are a signature cornerstone, giving regional operators access to vital spectrum and to phones that allow them to compete with the Big Four carriers. For example, Ketchikan Public Utilities, in April, launched a 4G network in Ketchikan, Alaska, a major cruise ship port, as a participant in the Verizon Wireless’ LTE in Rural America program.
Started in 2010, the program currently has 21 participants, 18 of which have launched 4G LTE networks covering more than 2.2 million people and 62,000 square miles. Rural carriers lease 700 MHz Upper C block spectrum from Verizon Wireless and build and operate their own 4G LTE radio networks. Verizon also throws in access to its evolved back core in with the deal, which I will touch on more below.
Last September, 15 rural network carriers were added Sprint’s Rural Roaming Preferred Provider program, giving them low-cost access to Sprint’s nationwide 4G LTE network and access to an expanded line of the latest, smartest phones. The program now includes 27 carriers, extending coverage in 27 states, over 565,000 square miles and a population of more than 38 million people.
Hosted and Managed Services
If roaming agreements are the cornerstone, hosted and managed services are the brick and mortar for rural operators, giving them access to network core equipment that would cost millions dollars to own. This brings 2G, 3G and high speed LTE broadband to areas with little population. Shared Evolved Packet Core is available from NewCore Wireless, NetAmerica Alliance, GlobeComm and ClearSky Technologies, among others others.
Small Cell as a Service (SCaaS), offered by ClearSky Technologies, allows regional wireless operators to cost-effectively address a number of operational coverage challenges with small cells, usually thought of as only an urban solution. The more services that can be offered over the infrastructure the better for rural operators. Hosted managed services also provide asset management and vehicle tracking, as well as WAP, SMS, MMS and voicemail. Additionally, hosted M2M services allow operators to provide enterprise-specific services in areas that have more cows, rows of corn or oil derricks than people.
Ericsson Brings LTE to Rural Alaska
A great example of hosted services bringing big city data speeds to the hinterlands, General Communication, Inc. has just signed a deal with the wireless technology and services side of Ericsson, to bring high-speed fixed and mobile connections to the oil fields of Alaska’s North Slope. GCI has begun construction and installation of a wireless data network, which will include a total of nine sites spanning more than 3,738 square miles, an area larger than the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. The new LTE network puts GCI on the leading edge of technology with downloads of 30 Mbps, supporting advanced oil field data requirements.
“Ericsson is proud to help GCI bring LTE to the most remote and isolated oil producing area in North America. We believe that the high-speed data network that GCI is building will greatly improve the productivity, safety and reliability of oilfield operations,” said Angel Ruiz, head of Ericsson North America, said in a press release.
According to the consensus at the Wireless Infrastructure Show, without broadband build out rural America will disappear. That makes hosted and manage services, as well as data roaming agreements lifelines to the future of our rural areas.