Small operators prep for LTE, despite uncertainties

NEW ORLEANS--Tier 3 operators are moving ahead with LTE deployments, despite the fact that they face uncertainties about handset availability, roaming partnerships, device interoperability and backhaul capacity.

At the FierceWireless executive breakfast event, "Strategies for Today's Wireless Landscape," held at the Competitive Carriers Association convention here Wednesday, Eric Woody, chief technical and operations officer at Union Wireless, said that his company, which offers service in Wyoming, Northwestern Colorado and parts of Utah, is planning to have its LTE network live in June. The company has 700 MHz spectrum in the A, B and C bands, and Woody said that the lack of handset interoperability between the bands will hurt Union's ability to commercially launch the service. "I'm probably building a network that I won't be able to sell anything on," he said, noting that the company is pushing for a June deployment to meet the FCC's 700 MHz buildout requirements.  

Woody also said that his company has difficulty finding backhaul capacity for its burgeoning LTE network. "Backhaul is a problem," Woody said. "So much of our area is remote."

Linda Martin, EVP and COO of Immix Wireless, said that Immix, which operates markets in Pennsylvania, is just starting to build LTE in the 700 MHz spectrum. Martin noted that Immix received a $36 million American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant to deploy the service. "We are fortunate to have spectrum," Martin said. "We are just about to start the build."

But for Carolina West Wireless, a Tier 3 operator in North Carolina with about 80,000 subscribers, the path to LTE is far from clear. Slayton Stewart, CEO of Carolina West Wireless, said the company plans to build two LTE networks. As part of Verizon Wireless' (NYSE:VZ)  LTE in Rural America program, Carolina will build an LTE network using spectrum from Verizon in the 700 MHz C Block.

But the company also has the ability to build another LTE network, which Stewart said it would consider sharing with partners.  The company has spectrum in various bands, including 850 MHz, 700 MHz, AWS and 1900 MHz but is struggling to decide which band to use for LTE. "We have plenty of spectrum and that almost confuses it," he said. "We are not sure what direction to go because we don't know how it impacts the device ecosystem … We have gone through the RFPs and we know the price of LTE. It's cheaper to build LTE than maintain 3G," Stewart said.

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