Rock Wireless launches LTE service in remote areas of the Dakotas thanks to Mobility Fund

Rock Wireless, a division of Standing Rock Telecom, has launched LTE service on an American Indian reservation straddling remote parts of North and South Dakota thanks to funds awarded via the FCC's Mobility Fund. Rock Wireless, the first tribally-owned wireless carrier, is aiming to give Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ) some competition for service in the high plains.

Prior to the FCC's Mobility Fund Auction 901 in the fall of 2012, Rock Wireless had operated a CDMA 1X network in the area, having launched service in 2010. The company was granted the status of being an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) in 2011. According to Matthew Wood, general manager at Rock Wireless, in the 2011-2012 timeframe the company had around 1,200-1,300 customers but because of network issues related to its switches and other network gear, service was disrupted and the company lost the majority of its customers. Rock Wireless has around 300 customers now but Wood said that Rock plans on "recouping all of the customers we lost with the new network."

While 300 customers or even 1,300 might not sound like a lot in the grand scheme of things, for context the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation covers close to 3,600 square miles and the population density is around two people per square mile.

In 2012 the FCC awarded around $300 million in one-time Mobility Fund support to carriers that agreed to provide 3G or LTE service to areas that did not have mobile voice and broadband coverage. Carriers bid for the amount of support they needed to meet the Mobility Fund Phase I service and other public interest obligations in the eligible census blocks covered by the geographic area on which they bid. Carriers were given three years to fulfill all of their coverage requirements.

Rock Wireless was awarded $3.3 million as part of the auction. Wood said that the company has built out the network using three LTE cell sites overlaid with eight UMTS sites. The company has covered 75 percent of its coverage area and plans on moving ahead on the other 25 percent in the near future.  The company is using 1900 MHz PCS spectrum for its UMTS network and 700 MHz A Block spectrum (Band Class 12) for its LTE service.

Verizon has one tower on the reservation, according to Wood, but Rock Wireless faces no other real competitors in the area.

Rock Wireless is partnering with network vendor NewCore  Wireless, which is providing core network, switching, interfacing with trunking and roaming services for the carrier. "What we discovered was it was very difficult to operate doing own core switching and operating towers with limited staff," Wood said. "With the Mobility Fund, it gave us the opportunity to create  a network and offload some of those core switching tasks to NewCore and to mainly do sales and get to 4G LTE."

Wood said the company is finalizing new pricing plans and could not immediately provide details on the plans. He also said the company hopes to get more 700 MHz A Block devices soon. T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) is using that band for its 700 MHz service, AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T)  has started to add the band to some its newest LTE devices and Sprint (NYSE: S) has pledge to add support for the band as well in partnership with rural carriers.

"Our major competitor here is Verizon," Wood told FierceWireless. "As long as we can offer a good service at a decent price vs. Verizon, that's what we'll do for our customers."  

NewCore COO Albert Kangas said the company works with Rock Wireless' radio access network vendor, Ericsson (NASDAQ: ERIC) to connect the carrier's sites to NewCore's core switching infrastructure. He also said that NewCore is in the process of integrating its switching and radio equipment for Band Class 12 LTE with half of the Tier 1 carriers, though he declined to say which ones. Given T-Mobile and Sprint's support of the band, it is likely those two.

Wood said that for the reservation, having a tribally-owned carrier is important because it acts like a  utility company that can provide service at a discount compared to larger competitors.

Rock Wireless is just one of 33 companies that were winning bidders for Mobility Fund Phase I funds from Auction 901. The FCC initially announced the 795 winning bids and associated winning bidders for Mobility Fund Phase I support.

U.S. Cellular (NYSE:USM) was awarded $40 million worth of funding and pledged extend wireless service to select counties via 26 projects in 10 states where it is an ETC, including Illinois, Iowa, Maine, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

"U.S. Cellular was a successful bidder on 26 projects across 10 states. We intend to construct 72 new cell sites in total, all of which will be configured to provide 4G service," U.S. Cellular said in a statement to FierceWireless. "Under the FCC rules we have up to three years to complete construction and we expect to have all of these new sites up and running and serving customers well in advance of the FCC deadline."

U.S. Cellular added that "there is a significant amount of funding remaining as a result of defaulted bids which we have urged the FCC to distribute to next in line bidders including U.S. Cellular. We remain committed to extending service in rural America and hope that the FCC will move forward with distributing the remaining funding as soon as possible." 

Indeed, in December 2013 the FCC announced that Mobility Fund Phase I support was authorized for 22 winning bids but that 94 bids had defaulted, including several dozen from GCI in Alaska as well as Wichita Online in Oklahoma. In May 2014 another eight bids were deemed in default

An FCC spokeswoman did not immediately have a comment on the status of the Mobility Fund winning bidders.  

For more:
- see this release

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