There are still areas of the United States where people live and work without reliable wireless reception. What are the carriers doing about it?
The four largest U.S. carriers -- AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless -- all have ambitious plans to grow their wireless networks in coming years. Recently, the FCC tallied more than $25 billion in private funding that is being spent collectively each year on network improvements by all the carriers -- although the lion's share of that $25 billion investment is going toward 4G LTE deployments that mostly cover cities and other larger population centers.
Despite that, some private sector initiatives have emerged in the last year to address the needs of rural counties. The approaches range from large carriers working with smaller rural carriers on roaming deals, to the purchase of more wireless spectrum.
Verizon Wireless: The Rural America program
Verizon set up its LTE in Rural America Program in 2010 to speed up the adoption of LTE in rural areas. So far, 20 rural carriers in 15 states are in the program, leasing Verizon's 700MHz spectrum and using its core 4G LTE equipment. The rural carriers use their own cell towers and backhaul (the fiber or copper links that connect a tower to a network distribution facility).
Seven of the 20 carriers have launched the service in areas of Wisconsin, Michigan, Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma and Utah. The networks have more than 220 cell towers or cell sites on buildings and other structures in service, and cover nearly one million people, Verizon says. Customers of the participating rural carriers in those areas are able to roam onto Verizon's LTE network. Verizon customers can also roam onto the rural carrier networks, subject to Verizon's data charges.
The other 13 rural carriers will be addressing needs in Texas, Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, Idaho, Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia. Overall, the program is supposed to eventually reach 2.7 million people in 14 states.
While Verizon's rural program undeniably helps provide faster wireless LTE service to some customers who might not otherwise get it, it is also viewed by critics as a move to "deflect potential political and public backlash over its...LTE network build" that prioritizes the most populous areas, according to Chris Nicoll, an analyst at Analysys Mason.
AT&T: Project Velocity IP
In November, AT&T announced Project Velocity IP, which will cost the carrier $14 billion over three years to bring wired and wireless to more locations in the U.S. About $8 billion is for wireless alone.
AT&T is also buying up more spectrum that could help rural coverage. In January, AT&T said it would buy 39 licenses in the 700MHz band from Verizon for $1.9 billion. The licenses cover 42 million people in 18 states, including sparsely populated Montana, Idaho and Montana. The carrier says it penned nearly 50 agreements in 2012 to buy more spectrum, much of it from the Wireless Communications Service spectrum in 2300MHz channels.
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