C Spire: 50% of our customer base owns smartphones

with C Spire Wireless CEO CEO Hu Meena
with C Spire Wireless CEO Hu Meena

After more than 20 years, Cellular South is no more. In its place is C Spire Wireless, a new brand for a regional carrier hoping to compete in an industry dominated by giants like AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T), Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) and Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S).

Headed by longtime CEO Hu Meena, C Spire is now looking to roll out LTE network technology, sell additional smartphones, dip into the tablet market and continue to offer unlimited smartphone data (with caveats). The privately held company, which counts roughly 875,000 wireless subscribers, hopes the actions will help it retain and attract subscribers in its markets that stretch across Mississippi and parts of Tennessee, Alabama and Florida. The carrier offers nationwide service through roaming, but doesn't disclose its roaming partners.

FierceWireless Executive Editor Mike Dano spoke with Meena about the carrier's rebranding, its smartphone efforts and its CDMA-powered data service.

FierceWireless: Can you talk about the rebranding of C Spire? How has it been received by customers?

Meena: I can sum up the response in one word: Excitement. There's been excitement in our marketplace by the customers who are already subscribed to Cellular South service, and by the potential customers who are intrigued by this new name that we operate under today, C Spire Wireless.

FierceWireless: And it's up to the customer whether they want to switch to the new C Spire services? Have any customers opted to switch?

Meena: We've had good response to the new plans that we're offering and they have already moved a lot of customers [over]. I don't have the exact number. I know there's been significant interest and movement toward the new plans. And there have been others who have decided to stay with our incumbent plans. So it's a good mix.

FierceWireless: Can you tell me any more about C Spire's planned launch of LTE, previously set for later this year?

Meena: Unfortunately I can't talk about that at all. What I can say is that we absolutely know that getting LTE into the market as soon as possible, and in as robust a fashion as possible, is absolutely critical to not only C Spire Wireless but to any carrier. And we're working diligently toward that, but I'm not able to talk about any dates.

FierceWireless: This brings up a related topic: 700 MHz interoperability. C Spire is one of a number of companies petitioning the FCC to require all LTE networks in the United States to interoperate. Can you talk about this proposal that is currently before the FCC?

Meena: The FCC has absolutely shirked its duty in ensuring that there is interoperability in 700 MHz, and we are incredibly frustrated by that. We feel like the FCC should step in and ensure that there is interoperability at 700 MHz so that the regional-type carriers and other carriers that are not named AT&T and Verizon can have access to an ecosystem of devices that will allow us to get to market just as soon as they have.

Back in 2007, the vision of LTE was to get us back to the place where we once were, where there was one technology that reigned. The industry kind of bifurcated between GSM and CDMA, and the vision of LTE was that we would all get to one ecosystem where all carriers could compete in. But the FCC has allowed Verizon to have their own proprietary band class and has allowed AT&T to do it, too.

We knew in 2007 that we wanted to get to market early with LTE, we participated in the auction in 2008, we had a credit facility set up, and we were very successful in the auction. But because of the interoperability issue and also the lack of any data roaming mandate with any teeth in it--we should have been in market [with LTE] a year ago if a level playing field had existed. But it hasn't. And we're very frustrated with that.

We're doing everything we possibly can to ensure there is interoperability at 700 MHz just like it was in 850 [MHz] back in the 1980s, just like it was with PCS in the 1990s, and just like it was in AWS in the 2000s. It should be the same thing with 700.

FierceWireless: So do you know what the status is of this proposal at the FCC?

Meena: There's been a lot of talk. But no activity that leads us to full interoperability. Or even partial interoperability.

FierceWireless: Speaking of LTE, would C Spire consider a partnership with Verizon in Verizon's rural LTE buildout program, whereby C Spire would build out an LTE network on Verizon's spectrum?

Meena: Well there's no possibility of that because Verizon has told us that we cannot participate in that. So we don't have that opportunity.

FierceWireless: Can you say why C Spire was not allowed into that program?

Meena: I don't know exactly why. We were told we could not participate.

[Editor's Note: Verizon declined to comment on this issue.]

FierceWireless: Can you talk about smartphone sales at C Spire? The carrier offers a range of options.

Meena: Our customers are very interested in smartphones. Over 60 percent of our sales are smartphones. And today, 50 percent of our customer base has smartphones. So we have a very data-centric customer base.

FierceWireless: Can you talk about what new smartphones C Spire plans to offer for the holidays?

Meena: I really can't.

FierceWireless: Will C Spire offer the iPhone?

Meena: We're always trying to get access to the best phones possible. The iPhone is certainly a really good phone. But that's not something I can talk about right now.

FierceWireless: Switching gears a little, I know C Spire has voiced its opposition to the proposed merger of AT&T and T-Mobile. Are there any conditions under which you would support that transaction?

Meena: The conditions have been tried with previous mergers, to no success. That has been tried and failed. So we're not enticed by that. We think the industry should return to its competitive roots. We just don't see anything good about AT&T and T-Mobile getting together.

FierceWireless: Does C Spire plan to engage in any mergers or acquisitions?

Meena: Today we're really focused on establishing this new brand, and acquisitions are not something we're really focused on at this point. It's not that we're against acquiring spectrum or making acquisitions, it's just not our focus today.

FierceWireless: Can you talk about C Spire's decision to ink an agreement with LightSquared instead of Clearwire?

Meena: We are partial to LTE. We just don't know that much about WiMAX. We are actively pursuing as many LTE roaming agreements as we can get. We were pleased that the people at LightSquared were amenable to that.

FierceWireless: Let's talk about C Spire's current network offerings. You've promised to offer "infinite" data. Do you have the network capacity for that?

Meena: We will be able to offer limitless data. Streaming data is the challenge. And we are going to charge extra for streaming. But there's still an amount the customer can pay to have unlimited streaming. But our theory and our practice has been to make sure that wireless users are able to use their devices without being punished. So we're committed to it. We're committed to offering unlimited data.

FierceWireless: Are you concerned about charging differently for streaming media? Are you worried this will confuse subscribers?

[Editor's Note: C Spire customers can get unlimited streaming with a Monthly Infinite Pass for $30, which they can add to their Choice Infinite Plan (the unlimited everything plan), which is $70. So, completely unlimited/infinite wireless service at C Spire (calls, data, texts, video, picture messaging) is $100 a month. For customers who don't need continuous unlimited streaming, the carrier offers a 2-hour pass for $5 and 5-hour pass for $10.]

Meena: In our focus groups and research there doesn't seem to be any significant amount of confusion. The customers understand that and appreciate that. Remember, our customer base is comprised of 50 percent smartphone users anyway, so we're talking about those who are comfortable using data. So it's not a new concept to them. We think they'll understand it and appreciate it.