SI teams with Sprint, Huawei for rural CDMA network

SI Wireless soon plans to turn on a CDMA EVDO network that is scheduled to cover roughly 1.2 million POPs in Illinois, Western Kentucky and most of Tennessee. The effort will work over spectrum licenses SI purchased and leased from Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) earlier this year.

Terry Addington, CEO of SI Wireless, said the teaming benefits both parties: SI gets access to spectrum it can use to make a wireless play, and Sprint expands the reach of its network through a roaming agreement with SI.

"It's a fair deal, said Addington, who previously headed First Cellular of Southern Illinois and served as CTIA's chairman of the board and RCA's president. "It allows us to operate as an independent carrier. The relationship with Sprint has been very positive."

Addington noted that SI's agreement with Sprint "is not an affiliate deal, it's a roaming relationship." He said SI will work to ensure its services are "consistent" with those of Sprint so that "their customers and ours get as seamless a service as possible."

Addington said SI is working with six local exchange carriers in Illinois--Madison County Telephone, Egyptian Telephone Cooperative, Wabash Telephone Cooperative, Hamilton County Telephone Cooperative, Shawnee Telephone Company and Crossville Telephone Company--to build out the network. He said the firms previously fronted First Cellular of Southern Illinois, with Addington at the helm, but sold the business to Alltel in 2006. The new deal with Sprint represents the companies' desire to get back into wireless.

Interestingly, Addington said SI is open to a possible deal with Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) for LTE. The nation's largest carrier has detailed a rural licensing program for its LTE network that follows the same model as SI's deal with Sprint; Bluegrass Cellular has already signed on to Verizon's program. Addington said SI has had conversations with Verizon on the topic, but said no deal is pending.

Addington said SI's current CDMA buildout, set to get underway in 30-60 days, will include around 300 cell sites supplied by Huawei. He said SI's buildout is scheduled to be finished by mid-2012.

SI's use of Huawei equipment is notable considering Sprint's recent issues with the Chinese equipment vendor. U.S. lawmakers raised security concerns that reportedly led Sprint to remove Huawei from bidding for the operator's massive network modernization project, reportedly valued at up to $7 billion during the next few years. Huawei has argued against the security concerns. Indeed, the vendor continues to make headway in the U.S. wireless market; besides its new deal with SI, Huawei supplies network equipment to Clearwire (NASDAQ:CLWR) and Cox Communications.

For more:
- see this FCC filing

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