RCA goes after bigger fish, lands Sprint as new member

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Sue Marek
LAS VEGAS--The Rural Cellular Association has always positioned itself as an advocate for the small wireless carrier that may not otherwise have a voice among the regulators and legislators in Washington, D.C. But this relatively unassuming trade group is in the midst of a big transformation--if you haven't paid attention to the RCA before, you better start now.

RCA has been quietly morphing from a trade group for the little operators into a powerful voice for what it calls the "competitive carrier," or any U.S. wireless operator other than Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) or AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T). And with yesterday's announcement that Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S), a Tier 1 operator with approximately 50 million customers, joined the RCA as an affiliate member, it's clear that this trade group is gearing up to go to battle with the largest two U.S. operators.

RCA spokeswoman Lucy Tutwiler said RCA's mission hasn't changed. It's still an advocate for small operators with fewer than 10 million customers. However, RCA does have a provision for affiliate members, which can include international operators, operators without an FCC license or those with more than 10 million subscribers. Sprint clearly falls into that last category.

Sprint's new role as an RCA member is interesting, particularly considering that Sprint CEO Dan Hesse is currently the chairman of CTIA, the wireless trade association and lobbying group for all U.S. wireless operators.

But CTIA has been criticized by some smaller operators, particularly Cellular South, for what is perceived to be a bias toward its Tier 1 operator members. (Interestingly, Hu Meena, CEO of Cellular South and a former CTIA board member, is the new chairman of the RCA.) In fact, Cellular South recently resigned from CTIA, claiming the association unfairly favored its largest members, AT&T Mobility and Verizon. At the time, Eric Graham, Cellular South's vice president of government relations, told FierceWireless that CTIA has either been silent on many key issues affecting smaller carriers or has taken stances favoring the larger operators. "It all comes back to the largest two carriers and their policy positions. And so, ultimately, in our view, CTIA has become a surrogate for AT&T and Verizon."

It appears RCA is ready to step into this void.

At the RCA conference in Las Vegas yesterday, President Steve Berry outlined several key initiatives for the group, including Universal Service Fund reform, the need for interoperable devices in the paired bands of the 700 MHz spectrum, and, most importantly, opposition to AT&T's proposed $39 billion acquisition of T-Mobile USA.

Berry referred to the deal with the "M word," with "M" not standing for merger but for monopoly. He added that this acquisition, if approved, would create major problems for smaller carriers because, among other things, it would give AT&T and Verizon access to a tremendous amount of wireless spectrum as well a hold on the vast majority of U.S. wireless consumers. When it comes to AT&T's proposed acquisition of T-Mobile, Sprint and RCA have a common rallying call. This new-found alliance between the two will be interesting to watch in the year ahead. --Sue

P.S. Check out this slideshow from yesterday's RCA conference in Las Vegas.