Bandwidth constraints not an issue for Tier 3 operators--at least not yet

Sue MarekIt's no secret that Tier 1 operators across the U.S. are grappling with skyrocketing growth in mobile data traffic and the constraints that this growth has placed on their wireless networks. Most of the big operators are furiously increasing their backhaul capacity and investigating different off-loading data technologies (such as WiFi) to help ease congestion.

But for Tier 3 operators that offer wireless service to customers in less populated areas, the situation is quite different. Until recently, many of these operators did not have access to high-end smartphones, which are credited with driving much of the mobile data traffic. But that is changing: This summer a number of Tier 2 and Tier 3 operators announced the launch of Android-powered smartphones.

Speaking at the Silicon Flatirons conference on wireless broadband yesterday in Boulder, Co., Andy Newell, general counsel for rural operator Viaero Wireless, said his company's network has not been impacted by the growing demand for wireless data. "We have a very robust network," he said, adding that the company has an extensive microwave system to handle its backhaul traffic. "We have the capacity to handle more data than we handle now."

Of course, some of that additional capacity is probably due to the fact that Viaero until recently was unable to offer smartphones to its customer base. "Applications are great, but they have to run on a platform that is run on handsets that are locked by major carriers," Newell said, referring to the current debate over handset exclusivity. Viaero, along with the Rural Cellular Association, has been a vocal critic of large operators that ink exclusive handset deals with manufacturers. The FCC is currently monitoring the situation and gathering information on the issue.  

Newell also said he believes that many operators are suffering from network constraints because they failed to invest properly in their network. "It takes time and effort and investment to build towers, and we build a lot of them so that we can provide in-building coverage. Carriers that have cut corners may have gotten away with it in the voice world, but in the data world, if they want a service to compete with the cable companies, they need the infrastructure to do it."

Of course, Viaero's abundance of network capacity may change once more of its subscribers migrate to smartphones and begin to use the firm's wireless data network. As a tier 3 operator, Viaero by definition has a much smaller number of customers than Tier 1 operators, so it's hard to conclude that Viaero's network is superior to that of a Tier 1 operator. Clearly Tier 3 operators have different challenges--but for now, data capacity isn't one of them. --Sue