Alltel's roaming agreement with Sprint Nextel last week highlights the critical role the regional operator will play in the battle between Sprint and Verizon Wireless for CDMA 1xEV-DO market share. Alltel has been a long-time preferred roaming partner with Verizon, playing an important piece of the operator's America's Choice plan that touts the country's best voice coverage. Alltel's deal with Sprint puts some significant pressure on Verizon because the agreement includes EV-DO roaming, whereas Verizon's deal only includes voice and 1xRTT roaming. Verizon risks a significant lag in EV-DO coverage if it doesn't renegotiate its roaming deal, which doesn't expire until 2010, to include EV-DO.
That means Alltel is sitting pretty. And don't forget a newly forged agreement with Cingular is expanding that operators' GSM coverage. Alltel owns GSM properties from its purchase of Western Wireless. The situation reminds me of how valuable small operators became when AT&T Wireless launched the nation's first flat-rate plan in the late 1990s and competitors followed. All relied on smaller players for coverage. These small operators made a pretty lucrative business out of their roaming deals with nationwide operators, and it looks like Alltel could do the same for quite some time if it stays lockstep with these nationwide players in rolling out EV-DO and adding the same technology enhancements.
Right now Sprint Nextel and Verizon are preoccupied with other acquisitions or potential deals. Sprint is still digesting its purchase of Nextel and several affiliates, while Verizon's top concern is buying out Vodafone. But I can see a bidding war for the company coming on next year. - Lynnette