Editor’s Corner—Rural deployments, 600 MHz spectrum and Sprint/T-Mobile will be top of mind at CCA 2017

CCA's show in Fort Worth, Texas, will feature steers of both the mechanical and real variety.

The CCA is holding its annual fall show Oct. 25-27 in Fort Worth, Texas, and there ought to be plenty for the nation’s smaller carriers to cover, including expanding rural deployments potentially through fixed wireless technologies, as well as deploying newly obtained 600 MHz spectrum. But hanging over the whole show will be one big question: Will Sprint and T-Mobile consummate their much-rumored merger? And what effect might that transaction have on the wider wireless industry?

"There will probably be discussions about continued consolidation in the industry,” acknowledged Steven Berry, president and CEO of the CCA, the trade show for smaller wireless carriers (at least those carriers smaller than AT&T and Verizon; Sprint and T-Mobile are CCA members and executives from both operators will attend the organization’s trade show in Fort Worth).

Wall Street and industry observers have long speculated on a combination of the nation’s third and fourth largest wireless carriers, noting that such a transaction would create an operator that would likely stand on equal footing to market heavyweights Verizon and AT&T. (It’s unclear whether a merged Sprint and T-Mobile would still qualify as one of CCA’s “competitive carrier” members.)

But for the rest of CCA’s membership, which includes smaller carriers ranging from C Spire to Bluegrass Cellular to Nex-Tech Wireless, a merger between Sprint and T-Mobile could create opportunities as well as challenges, particularly if the government requires any spectrum or network divestitures as a condition on the transaction.

But beyond the big question on everyone’s mind, CCA’s Berry said that the organization’s members are also looking to discuss topics including how they might expand coverage in rural areas, potentially through 600 MHz spectrum. Berry noted that CCA members including T-Mobile acquired fully 90% of the 600 MHz spectrum that the FCC auctioned earlier this year, and now they’re looking at ways to deploy it quickly.

That effort faces significant challenges though since TV broadcasters are currently using large chunks of that spectrum; the CCA has been working with the FCC and others to pave the way for a smooth and speedy spectrum handoff from TV broadcasters to 600 MHz auction winners.

“They can’t afford not to deploy assets that they spent literally hundreds of millions of dollars acquiring,” Berry explained. “All those things are going to be first and foremost on the minds of the small carriers.”

Rolling out that spectrum is part of the wireless industry’s wider goal of deploying service in rural areas. And this effort appears to have been given a shot in the arm with advancements on the fixed wireless front. C Spire, AT&T and others have recently announced plans to join fixed wireless providers like Rise Broadband by using wireless technologies to offer internet services to homes, offices and other locations. Much of the current fixed wireless action is centered on LTE technology, but AT&T, Verizon and others hope to use 5G to speed up fixed wireless speeds and deployments.

"Fixed wireless is coming on really strong,” Berry said.

Berry noted that this year’s CCA attendance numbers are tracking slightly higher than those from last year, though he declined to provide specific figures. He also said that the organization is expecting increased interest from Texas-area wireless players. And in a nod to the region’s culture, CCA is planning to have bulls—both of the real and mechanical variety—on hand at the show.

After a day of volunteering at The Center for Transforming Lives, among other events, the CCA show will kick off in earnest on Wednesday, Oct. 25, with an early morning panel discussing wireless network capacity, and where more might come from. I’ll be moderating that discussion among speakers including Paul Challoner from Nokia, Craig Sparks from C Spire and Nathan Sutter from Nex-Tech Wireless.

The CCA has also scheduled sessions featuring FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, as well as discussions that will dive into the FirstNet buildout process and what that might mean for rural operators. AT&T won a deal to act as FirstNet’s main provider, but Verizon, U.S. Cellular and others have signaled their interest in working with FirstNet to provide wireless services to public safety users.

“I think that’s going to be extremely interesting,” Berry said of CCA’s FirstNet sessions. “There’s a lot of issues on the line.”

Other CCA events will focus on topics ranging from policy to spectrum usage to women in the wireless industry to startups to tower construction and maintenance. “I think we’ve got tons of stuff going on,” Berry said.

I’ll be at CCA this year moderating several discussions and covering the big news from the sessions and the show floor. Stay tuned. – Mike | @mikeddano