Cellular South cut ties with CTIA on the grounds that the industry association is indifferent to the welfare of its smaller members.
Whether or not that’s the case, Cellular South’s withdrawal from the industry association highlights a number of issues that are of particular importance to rural carriers – issues that smaller carriers say CTIA has either stayed neutral on or sided with its bigger members.
One of the major issues is handset exclusivity deals. According to the Rural Cellular Association (RCA), 45 of the top 50 handsets have exclusivity deals with Tier 1 carriers, effectively putting the gadgets out of reach for rural residents served by smaller carriers.
CTIA, whose largest members are AT&T and Verizon Wireless, has remained neutral on the issue. RCA, whose membership is comprised of carriers with a maximum subscriber base of 10 million, is opposed to the practice.
“I don’t think that a lot of people look at handset exclusivity beyond a market tool,” says Steven Berry, RCA’s executive director. “In rural America, it’s a denial of technology.”
Verizon Wireless threw smaller carriers a bone in July when it ended use of exclusive handset agreements lasting more than six months, but RCA said the commitment didn’t go far enough “to rectify the consumer and competitive harms caused by these agreements.” The exclusivity agreement compromise only affected new Verizon devices.
In a statement filed in response to Verizon’s change of heart, RCA said “neither Congress, nor the Department of Justice nor the Federal Communications Commission should allow any carrier to unilaterally dictate the nation’s telecommunications policies, particularly as the policies affect handset availability.”
Another hot-button issue for rural carriers is in-market data roaming. Carriers can deny data roaming agreements to competitors in the same market, although doing so with voice was prohibited years ago. Berry calls the data roaming issue “a fundamental backbone” to carriers’ business plans moving forward.
“When the customer goes outside your licensed service area, they expect to get the same services they’ve enjoyed from the carrier that sold them their plan,” he says.
As with the topic of handset exclusivity deals, CTIA remains neutral on the subject. CTIA is also neutral on the topic of spectrum allocation in the 700 MHz band.
RCA worries transitioning networks and handsets to 4G could be problematic because of the way AT&T and Verizon Wireless have developed band plans for the B band and C band, respectively. The unique nature of the band plans could result in AT&T and Verizon developing networks and handsets that would not be interoperable with the roaming needs of small carriers on the lower A and B spectrum bands.
RCA’s ultimate concern is that its members are being set up to fail. “It’s always rough for rural carriers when you have to go head to head with someone who has huge market dominance,” Berry says “It’s difficult for regional carriers and even more difficult for small carriers to continue to exist.”
Filed Under: Industry regulations