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Steven K. Berry is President & CEO of the Rural Cellular Association (RCA), and is speaking on Day Two of the LTE North America conference. We quiz him on the function of the RCA and find out his thoughts on Verizon’s Rural America Programme and the proposed AT&T/T-Mobile venture.

What are the aims and functions of the RCA?

RCA is the Rural Cellular Association, a competitive carriers association representing nearly 100 wireless carriers throughout the United States. While a number of our carriers are located in rural areas, we represent more than just a rural component.  Many of our carriers serve urban and suburban areas as well. We are the advocacy arm for the competitive carriers, and we fight for policy issues that could mean the very survival of competitive carriers.

What are the key challenges and issues that your organisation is dealing with to help expand rural coverage of mobile broadband, and specifically LTE, in the USA?

RCA is working hard to create an ecosystem that allows for competitive carriers to get devices and network infrastructure in a competitive fashion. Our members’ primary concern is their consumers, and a national competitive wireless ecosystem will help ensure consumers are able to obtain access to the new wireless services. Two of our main policy issues are data roaming and interoperability across the paired 700 MHz spectrum. Universal Service Fund (USF) reform is another critical issue, especially for many smaller carriers, as is spectrum allocation. After all, spectrum is the lifeblood of wireless carriers.

Verizon Wireless has announced deals with rural partners to provide LTE coverage to remote areas. What can you say about those?

This was a smart business move by Verizon. While I’m not privy to the individual deals and contracts, from what I understand, for the companies that Verizon chooses to partner with, Verizon is leasing its unique C band spectrum to rural carriers for the rural carrier to use to build out their 4G LTE networks. In return, Verizon provides the smaller carrier with roaming agreements and handsets.  I’m very critical of the program because it turns the smaller carriers essentially into MVNOs for Verizon. A healthier approach would be to allow small carriers to build out their own spectrum and allow them to enter into data roaming agreements with shared networks and interoperable systems.

What are the challenges around backhaul? Is it sufficient?

Backhaul is always a concern when demands on a network require greater data speeds and usage than the network can accommodate, but there are other alternatives. The best alternative to backhaul is a mix of fibre and microwave.  I think it will always be a challenge as the capacity of wireless devices increases, but there are strategies available for meeting these challenges. We’ve been very pleased with innovative backhaul solutions that are microwave based and as well as fibre.  Some of the alternative backhaul solutions are the result of challenges dealing with the high special access fees charged for traditional backhaul access provided by the legacy Bell companies.

What your views on the potential AT&T/T-Mobile merger?

We are opposed to the merger. An AT&T takeover of T-Mobile would eliminate not only a national carrier but also a partnering opportunity for smaller carriers. If you’re a GSM carrier, you will be in a monopoly situation with only one potential roaming partner – AT&T.  The proposed merger would further consolidate spectrum into the hands of one carrier that has shown total disinterest in roaming agreements and sharing network capacity. It would be a horizontal merger that does not meet the legal thresholds for approval, and it should not be approved. It shouldn’t be a policy the FCC or DOJ condones. The deal will raise prices, eliminate jobs, and stall innovation in the wireless industry.

To what extend will the Sprint LightSquared deal help in rural coverage?

It is encouraging that Sprint and LightSquared are trying to find a solution to 4G LTE.  It’s yet to be seen how effective this relationship will be for either Sprint or LightSquared, but I’m hopeful that the result will be a 4G LTE wholesale service provider that can team and partner with RCA members to bring mobile high-speed broadband services to every consumer in rural America. I’m encouraged by the joint effort, as our carriers need alternatives and choices. Both Sprint and LightSquared are members of RCA, and I am hopeful that they will find a solution.

The LTE North America 2011 conference takes place on the 8-9 November 2011 at the Fairmont Dallas Hotel in Dallas, Texas, USA.

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