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CCA 2012: Competitive carriers show teeth

LAS VEGAS – The hotly competitive nature of the mobile space was clearly evident at this week’s Competitive Carrier Association Annual Convention in Las Vegas where few attending carriers passed on the chance to throw a barb or two at rivals AT&T Mobility and Verizon Wireless, two operators that are not counted among the former Rural Cellular Association’s membership list.

The barb-throwing was especially pointed during a panel discussion involving a number of CCA member carrier executives. Hu Meena, president and CEO of C Spire, noted that the current “duopoly” was preventing real competition in the market as the two largest carriers have achieved scale that they use to block others from being able to compete on a level playing field.

CCA members were especially rough on AT&T Mobility, which appears to be still a prime target for most carriers following its unsuccessful attempt at acquiring T-Mobile USA in 2011. The current bile targeting AT&T Mobility revolves around spectrum issues, and more specifically its attempts to acquire new spectrum from license holders and its continued push for its Band Class 17 proposal. The Band Class 17 issue has handcuffed a number of smaller carriers that spent hundreds of millions of dollars on A-Block spectrum licenses in the 700 MHz auction, only to see AT&T Mobility attempt to prevent that band being included in band classes involving the B- and lower C-Block.

Hu Meena said he wasn’t sure why AT&T Mobility was so concerned about interference in spectrum that it did not even own.

“I don’t know why AT&T is worried about our devices having interference, we are not,” Meena said.

C Spire, along with a number of other carriers, have been unable or unwilling to commit to an LTE build out using their 700 MHz spectrum because of uncertainty regarding the ability to offer nationwide roaming that would come from an adoption of Band Class 12 rules as well as the current limitation on device availability. C Spire is instead relying on the re-farming of a fraction of its 1.9 GHz spectrum holdings to support the recent launch of LTE services, which was made possible by fellow CCA member Sprint Nextel also relying on the 1.9 GHz band for its LTE build.

One of the few carriers to have gone ahead with an LTE deployment in the 700 MHz A-Block is U.S. Cellular, which launched services earlier this year. That deployment is supported by a handful of Samsung provided devices. However, that offering is somewhat limited in its scope as the carrier cannot offer LTE roaming services due to the lack of nationwide presence of A-Block 700 MHz deployments.

Verizon Wireless’ position among smaller operators is somewhat more confusing. The carrier was actually a presenter at the conference last year, with executives on hand trying to garner support for the carrier’s LTE in Rural America program. While CCA continues to cast a weary eye on that offering, a number of the association’s members have signed up for the service, with a few having already launched services. However, even those that have signed up seemed a bit guarded on their enthusiasm for the proposition as a long-term solution to their LTE needs.

T-Mobile USA: Belle of the ball

Showing the new-found spark of CCA, the event had T-Mobile USA’s COO Jim Alling tipped as a keynote speaker. Alling was until last week the interim CEO at T-Mobile USA, which recently named telecom veteran John Legere as its new CEO effective Sept. 22. Alling was tapped to run the carrier on an interim basis following the abrupt resignation of previous CEO Philipp Humme, who left the carrier in June.

Alling used his time on stage to link the wireless industry’s current competitive balance to his time at Starbucks where he oversaw the coffee company’s rapid growth in the flavored water space against stalwarts that were more concerned with the bottom line then in providing consumers what they wanted. (Who new customers wanted $4 coffee?)

Alling noted in his keynote address that the attempted acquisition struck at the heart of T-Mobile USA’s operations, which until that announcement early last year was a darling of consumer survey’s and to an extent consumers. Since that announcement, T-Mobile USA has been in a sort of operating spiral with customer defections growing along with dissatisfaction and concerns about its future.

Alling noted that the nixing of its acquisition lifted a weight off the shoulders of the carrier’s employees and plans, which quickly included joining CCA, reasserting its lobbying efforts, announcing a significant network overhaul and then drawing the ire of some of its fellow operators by reversing its opposition to spectrum deals by larger carriers in order to gain spectrum assets for itself. Busy times, indeed.

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