There are still areas of the United States where people live and work without reliable wireless reception. What are the carriers doing about it?
The four largest U.S. carriers -- AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless -- all have ambitious plans to grow their wireless networks in coming years. Recently, the FCC tallied more than $25 billion in private funding that is being spent collectively each year on network improvements by all the carriers -- although the lion's share of that $25 billion investment is going toward 4G LTE deployments that mostly cover cities and other larger population centers.
[We investigate why there are still areas that can't get at least 3G voice and data communications in our article Why some U.S. homes and businesses still don't have cellular service.]
Despite that, some private sector initiatives have emerged in the last year to address the needs of rural counties. The approaches range from large carriers working with smaller rural carriers on roaming deals, to the purchase of more wireless spectrum.
Verizon Wireless: The Rural America program
Verizon set up its LTE in Rural America Program in 2010 to speed up the adoption of LTE in rural areas. So far, 20 rural carriers in 15 states are in the program, leasing Verizon's 700MHz spectrum and using its core 4G LTE equipment. The rural carriers use their own cell towers and backhaul (the fiber or copper links that connect a tower to a network distribution facility).
Seven of the 20 carriers have launched the service in areas of Wisconsin, Michigan, Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma and Utah. The networks have more than 220 cell towers or cell sites on buildings and other structures in service, and cover nearly one million people, Verizon says. Customers of the participating rural carriers in those areas are able to roam onto Verizon's LTE network. Verizon customers can also roam onto the rural carrier networks, subject to Verizon's data charges.
The other 13 rural carriers will be addressing needs in Texas, Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, Idaho, Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia. Overall, the program is supposed to eventually reach 2.7 million people in 14 states.
While Verizon's rural program undeniably helps provide faster wireless LTE service to some customers who might not otherwise get it, it is also viewed by critics as a move to "deflect potential political and public backlash over its...LTE network build" that prioritizes the most populous areas, according to Chris Nicoll, an analyst at Analysys Mason.
AT&T: Project Velocity IP
In November, AT&T announced Project Velocity IP, which will cost the carrier $14 billion over three years to bring wired and wireless to more locations in the U.S. About $8 billion is for wireless alone.
AT&T is also buying up more spectrum that could help rural coverage. In January, AT&T said it would buy 39 licenses in the 700MHz band from Verizon for $1.9 billion. The licenses cover 42 million people in 18 states, including sparsely populated Montana, Idaho and Montana. The carrier says it penned nearly 50 agreements in 2012 to buy more spectrum, much of it from the Wireless Communications Service spectrum in 2300MHz channels.
AT&T also has supported small-cell technologies that can help bring wireless signals inside homes and businesses where copper and fiber do not reach.
John Donovan, senior executive vice president of AT&T technology and network operations, says in a blog posted on January 30 that 40,000 small cells (such as femtocells, metrocells and multi-standard metrocells) will be deployed by the end of 2015.
However, while all the major carriers are interested in seeing costs go down for small cell technologies so that signals can be improved in areas where there is already spectrum, valleys, mountains and buildings can still get in the way.
In addition, Nicoll says that AT&T's use of AWS spectrum at 1.7GHz and 2.1GHz, along with 1900MHz spectrum, provides poorer wireless penetration inside buildings when compared to Verizon's 700MHz spectrum.
Sprint's Network Vision
Sprint's Network Vision plan will consolidate LTE with other traditional network technologies to provide cost savings.
Meanwhile, Softbank of Japan has proposed an $8 billion investment to buy Sprint and is already generating cash to pay for buying more spectrum, including spectrum from U.S. Cellular in the midwest.
Nicoll says Sprint and Softbank could shake up the wireless market if they use Clearwire's 2.5GHz spectrum for very fast (100Mbps or more) data-only service through dongles used with tablets and laptops. But that would probably focus on populous areas, not underserved areas.
T-Mobile and MetroPCS
T-Mobile's merger with MetroPCS, approved March 11th by the FCC and the Department of Justice, will add more spectrum for 22 of the biggest U.S. markets. It won support from the Rural Telecommunications Group (comprised mainly of smaller carriers), which argued that the combined entity will be a "thriving, LTE-based national competitor to AT&T Inc. And Verizon Wireless." The group also supports Softbank's takeover of Sprint, for similar reasons.
Recently, T-Mobile also proposed that the FCC require interoperability in the 600MHz band now used by broadcasters once it goes up for auction (no sooner than 2014) for use by mobile broadband providers. There's a possibility that this could bring more spectrum into use in underserved areas.
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is email@example.com.