Sprint to help bring rural LTE partners into the 2.5 GHz ecosystem

Sprint (NYSE: S) will work with its rural LTE roaming partners to get them access to LTE devices and network infrastructure for the 2.5 GHz band, the carrier confirmed.

Technology alignment is a part of the agreements that Sprint announced with 12 operators in mid-June. "We will provide access to our vendors as part of our preferred partner program and stay aligned on technology roadmap for interoperability," Sprint spokeswoman Kelly Schlageter told FierceWireless.

The 12 agreements, which included a previously announced deal with nTelos Wireless, cover about 34 million POPs in 23 states. Sprint also inked deals with SouthernLINC Wireless, C Spire Wireless, Nex-Tech Wireless, Flat Wireless, SI Wireless, which does business as MobileNation, Inland Cellular, Illinois Valley Cellular, Carolina West Wireless, James Valley Telecommunications, Phoenix Wireless and VTel Wireless.

The Rural Roaming Preferred Program, which Sprint developed in conjunction with the Competitive Carriers Association, is intended to expand LTE roaming and was announced last March.  As part of its deal with the CCA, Sprint will use the CCA's data hub and allow CCA members to ink reciprocal roaming agreements with Sprint.

Sprint's deal with VTel provides a window into how the deals will work. VTel launched LTE service last week and is running an LTE-only network using the 700 MHz C Block, AWS and 2.5 GHz spectrum.

Since VTel does not have legacy 2G or 3G networks, the company does not currently have a roaming agreement with Sprint, according to Diane Guité, vice president of VTel Wireless. However, Schlageter said that Sprint has signed "a letter of intent with VTel and anticipates completing a formal agreement that has reciprocal roaming as a component." All of the agreements Sprint has with the other rural LTE partners have reciprocal roaming as a component, Schlageter said.

Guité noted in an interview with FierceWireless that "Sprint said you can use whatever technology we develop," and indeed VTel is expected to have access to Sprint's device portfolio and network technology ecosystem as part of the final deal.

VTel offers LTE service to 20,000 customers in Vermont, including in 24 towns such as Barnet, Berlin, Grand Isle, Hardwick, Manchester, St. Albans and Windsor. VTel's pricing ranges from $10 per month for 1 GB of data to $90 per month for 50 GB of LTE data before throttling.

VTel says average speeds are in the 15-20 Mbps range, with peak speeds of 50 Mbps. The company plans to work with Sprint's vendor partners to deploy carrier aggregation technology in the future to increase peak speeds to around 100 Mbps. VTel also  plans to deploy carrier aggregation "as soon as it's available and we can figure out how to get installed," Guité said.

Interestingly, VTel also intends to launch Voice over LTE phones for its service in late 2014 or early 2015, but can't right now because of a lack of VoLTE-capable devices. Schlageter said that Sprint will help VTel in those efforts even though Sprint has not committed to deploying VoLTE in the near future.

Sprint's outreach to rural LTE partners is notable because Sprint's deployment of 2.5 GHz LTE, especially using its new 8T8R radio heads, is a key factor in how it plans to set itself apart from the competition. The radios, combined with carrier aggregation technology, are expected to provide significant speed boosts compared to Sprint's current LTE deployment. If Sprint can get rural LTE partners to deploy such technology, it will extend its LTE network footprint and increase the size of the device and network ecosystem for 2.5 GHz LTE in the U.S. market, which could lower costs.  

VTel is currently using Ericsson (NASDAQ: ERIC) as its primary wireless network vendor, but Guité said the company is talking with other vendors. Nokia Networks (NYSE:NOK), Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU) and Samsung are Sprint's primary vendors for its Spark and 8T8R deployments.  

VTel started as an ILEC in 14 towns across Vermont and has been family-owned since it started operations in 1994.

For more:
- see this VTel release

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