Two operators participating in Verizon Wireless' (NYSE:VZ) LTE in Rural America program are close to launching service, and the initiative continues expanding its reach with the addition of new members.
Pioneer Cellular and Cellcom have each said they are planning springtime LTE launches. Pioneer Cellular was the first carrier sign onto Verizon's rural LTE initiative and intends to commercially launch the technology in central and western Oklahoma. It announced in December 2011 that it had successfully conducted end-to-end LTE tests using Verizon's 700 MHz spectrum in preparation for a spring launch.
Wisconsin-based Cellcom said last month that it had gotten positive results from testing of radios and trial devices at three sites in Sturgeon Bay, laying the foundation for a second-quarter rollout of LTE in Green Bay, Sturgeon Bay, Appleton, Oshkosh, Wausau and parts of Oconto and Marinette counties.
Verizon's rural LTE initiative aims to encourage rural service providers to build and operate LTE networks in their service areas that will operate via Verizon's 700 MHz spectrum. Rural partner customers will be allowed to roam onto Verizon's nationwide LTE network and vice-versa.
The program recently gained two new participants: Matanuska Telephone Association (MTA) of Alaska as well as Scobey, Mont.-based Sagebrush Cellular, which does business under the Nemont brand name in northeastern and south central Montana plus western North Dakota.
Verizon said it will lease Matanuska its 700 MHz upper C-Block wireless spectrum in Denali Borough and much of Matanuska-Susitna Borough. "The leased footprint is approximately 34,000 square miles, by far the largest upper 700 MHz spectrum lease within the Verizon LTE in the Rural America program," said Verizon.
Meanwhile, Sagebrush will build and operate an LTE network in portions of Valley, Daniels, Sheridan and Roosevelt counties in Montana and a portion of Divide county in North Dakota using 700 MHz upper C-Block wireless spectrum that it will lease from Verizon.
Sagebrush was formed by Nemont Telephone Cooperative in 1995. "There are several digital divides that exist between urban and rural America today. This arrangement reduces one such divide by bringing fourth-generation mobile data services to our customers sooner than otherwise possible," said Mike Kilgore, CEO of Nemont.
As of mid April 2011, Verizon had signed rural LTE agreements with eight companies, and that number had risen to 12 in early October 2011. Telecompetitor reports the number of program participants is now up to 17 and says that in addition to Cellcom, Nemont, Pioneer and Matanuska, Verizon has also signed with Appalachian Wireless, Bluegrass Cellular, Carolina West Wireless, Chariton Valley, Chat Mobility (counted by Verizon as two participants made up of RSA-1 and RSA-2 partners), Convergence Technologies, Custer Telephone, Cross Wireless, Northwest Missouri Cellular, S and R Communications, Strata Networks and Thumb Cellular. Verizon told Telecompetitor that its rural LTE program now covers 2.7 million POPs across 14 states.
Verizon Wireless recently increased its 2012 LTE coverage target by 10 million POPs to 260 million people covered. It expects to have LTE coverage in 400 markets by year's end, up from roughly 200 markets and 200 million POPs currently.
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