Data roaming, LTE interoperability likely will dominate discussions at RCA event

Sue Marek
How do smaller wireless operators compete in a world dominated by four Tier 1 operators with massive marketing budgets, millions of customers and the buying power to offer their customers the most exclusive handsets at the most competitive prices?

For many Tier 3 operators, the key to competing with the Tier 1 operators has been to differentiate by providing stellar customer service and offering innovative services that the others overlook.

But today's rural customers want fancy smartphones and faster network speeds, just like their big-city counterparts. In addition, they want their smartphones to work wherever they are, even when they are roaming away from their local market.  

Look for data roaming, LTE interoperability and handset exclusivity to be the big topics of discussion at next week's Rural Cellular Association conference in Las Vegas. The organization, which serves as an advocate for smaller operators on policy issues, hosts this annual confab for its members--regional carriers with fewer than 10 million subscribers.

RCA President Steve Berry said he expects more than 70 Tier 2 and Tier 3 operators to be represented at next week's show, which already has more registrants signed up than have attended past RCA events. In addition, the event will have more than 140 exhibitors. Berry said the RCA had to reconfigure the show floor to accommodate more booths after the event sold out of its original booth space.

It's not surprising that this event is likely to draw more attendees than in the past. Berry and his team have been working hard to attract new members--including recent additions such as MetroPCS (NASDAQ:PCS), Cisco, American Tower and more. In addition, there has been a growing division between the Tier 1 carriers and the small regional carriers, particularly as the number of Tier 2 carriers dwindles due to consolidation. In January 2010, Cellular South decided to end its membership in CTIA, arguing the trade group's activities favor its largest members, namely AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) and Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ).

The RCA event next week will kick off with its popular golf tournament on Monday, which Berry claims in the largest golf tournament of any wireless association, counting more than 200 golfers. Then on Tuesday it will feature a keynote from U.S. Cellular President and CEO Mary Dillon.   

Berry added that the event also will have panels focused on marketing, financial strategies such as getting more funding and also 4G technologies. In particular, look for lots of sessions on LTE, which smaller operators are now preparing to deploy. Berry said that RCA members are hopeful that last week's decision by the FCC to mandate data roaming will free up capital for LTE deployments. "I think we will see some decisions that can be made now," he said.  

That should be good news for equipment makers looking to secure deals with smaller operators, particularly now that most of the Tier 1 carriers have selected their initial LTE vendors.

I'll be attending next week's RCA event in Las Vegas. Look for additional coverage of the event here. --Sue