Report: Sprint to join competitive carriers in LTE roaming hub

Sprint (NYSE:S) is going to partner with smaller, rural carriers to create a virtual LTE network via roaming agreements as part of a data roaming hub set up by the Competitive Carriers Association. Further, T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) is considering participating as well.

According to a CNET report, the CCA will announce Thursday at its conference in San Antonio, Texas, the launch of a new Data Access Hub, which will facilitate more seamless data and voice roaming for participating carriers. The idea is that Sprint and T-Mobile will be able to gain access to rural LTE coverage they have not yet built out, and competitive carriers will get access to LTE networks in metro and urban areas where they don't operate. Additionally, customers of one rural carriers will be able to roam onto the network of another rural carrier.

Together, all of the participating carriers benefit in gaining access to a larger network footprint to put them more on par with industry leaders Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) and AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T).   

The report said that Sprint, along with a few rural and regional wireless carriers, are expected to be among the hub's first participating operators.

"U.S. Cellular (NYSE:USM) and Sprint have already tested the hub," CCA President Steve Berry told CNET. "And it's working. We have other carriers signing up to participate as well. Both Sprint and T-Mobile are on the steering committee."

Sprint declined to comment on the hub, according to CNET and T-Mobile issued a statement: "T-Mobile applauds the work of CCA has done to develop a data hub for its members and we are exploring opportunities to participate. In addition, we support an ecosystem that promotes interoperability across spectrum bands."

The CCA hub is actually not that new. In March 2013 CCA said its members would gain access to one-of-a-kind LTE data roaming hub developed by Transaction Network Services (TNS). At the time, TNS said the Data Services Hub was the only roaming hub of its kind in the industry, providing participating operators with the opportunity to connect LTE roaming, Wi-Fi access and interoperability with requisite 3G roaming fallback.

Berry talked openly about the hub with FierceWirelessTech in May 2013, explaining that it would be "the equivalent of an open ecosystem for any carrier that wants to connect to a 4G network."

Sprint is not a stranger to LTE roaming, either. In September 2013 Sprint confirmed to FierceWireless it had three operational inbound LTE roaming agreements, and had inked contracts with two providers for outbound roaming. Sprint openly declared it was working with regional carrier C Spire Wireless and was widely suspected of providing LTE roaming for Cricket provider Leap Wireless (NASDAQ:LEAP), which has since been acquired by AT&T.

Getting wider coverage is critical not just for smaller carriers but from Sprint and T-Mobile. Verizon's LTE network currently covers 305 million POPs. AT&T currently covers 280 million POPs with LTE and aims to hit 300 million by mid-year. Sprint's 1900 MHz LTE network covers 200 million POPs and Sprint aims to extend that to 250 million by mid-year.  T-Mobile's LTE network currently covers 210 million POPs, and T-Mobile is planning to expand that to 250 million by the end of this year.

Berry provided more details on how the hub will work in practice. Participating carriers can sign a single roaming agreement with another and connect to every carrier signed up to the hub. The roaming rates can be negotiated separately, but the business relationships are done through the hub, according to CNET. The hub will also be backwards compatible to 3G and 2G networks but is designed for LTE networks.

"Until now no one in the wireless market has done business this way," Berry said. "We needed a pathway to provide nationwide 4G LTE service. And the hub provides a seamless connection from one to many."

The hub could also serve as a way to connect international operators to numerous carriers' LTE networks without having to negotiate individual deals, Berry told CNET. Content providers could also strike deals with hub to offer premium access for content.  "You might have someone like ESPN make deals with all carriers participating in the hub," he said. "That's something that has never been done before."

Overall, Berry emphasized the hub as a win-win for participating carriers. "We are empowering the small carriers to remain independent," he said. "We're giving them a choice and an opportunity to leverage their assets so they can invest and make some money. Now they will know they will be able to roam on 4G LTE. That's a big deal."

For more:
- see this CNET article

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