T-Mobile: Several LTE roaming deals are in the works

LAS VEGAS--T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) is working with multiple partners to enable LTE roaming and will have several LTE roaming deals completed by year-end. Speaking at the FierceWireless breakfast on LTE roaming held at the Competitive Carriers' Association event here, Heather Stacey, director of business development at T-Mobile, said that the company is working with roaming partners using CCA's data roaming hub or through a bilateral roaming arrangement.

T-Mobile has been noticeably slower to initiate LTE roaming than Tier 1 players Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ) and Sprint (NYSE: S). Verizon has 21 LTE roaming partners, 18 of which have launched LTE service. Sprint, meanwhile, earlier this month added 15 new rural wireless carrier partners to its existing portfolio of  LTE roaming partners,  growing the size of its LTE roaming footprint by more than 4 million POPs.

Although T-Mobile has said it supports band compatibility for devices, Stacey admitted that some of the technology issues are challenging. She said that it's much easier to work with GSM carriers that are upgrading to LTE and are existing T-Mobile roaming partners because they are "aligned in technology and principles." However, she added that it was possible to work with CDMA operators that are upgrading to LTE.

Although technical hurdles regarding different spectrum bands and different band classes do exist, the panelists agreed that the business model is by far the biggest challenge facing LTE roaming. "I think its commercial and business model challenge," said Todd Rowley, vice president of business development at Sprint.  Rowley added that Sprint has had to rethink its entire approach to roaming.  "As we have gone from 3G to 4G at Sprint, we've had to look at roaming in a different way. The economics need to change and that's why we are adopting a partnering approach."

That partner approach includes collaborating with CCA on the group's Data Access Hub, which serves as a clearinghouse for participating members to reciprocal roaming agreements with CCA member operators. The CCA Data Access Hub expands collaboration opportunities among carriers, eases roaming implementation across carriers and makes it easier and less costly to expand 4G LTE coverage.

But does LTE's more efficient delivery of data equate to lower roaming rates for competitive carriers?  Pat Riordan, CEO of Cellcom, believes they do. "The rates have to be lower."

Sprint's Rowley agreed:  "LTE is more efficient … and rates should come down because of efficiency."

However, T-Mobile's Stacey said that while rates do need to come down, T-Mobile is looking at creative business models that will allow them to offer better roaming rates, or in some cases even free roaming. "We have creative business models with existing partners that allow us to get there.  Free roaming with some protections so they [customers] don't abuse the networks," Stacey said.

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