by Andrew J. Shepherd
Sprint 4G Rollout Updates
Wednesday, January 25, 2012 - 9:59 PM MST
On AT&T’s Public Policy Blog recently, AT&T Senior Vice President Bob Quinn makes some bold claims about Sprint "disinvestment" in rural areas. But, at best, AT&T has failed to do its homework. And, at worst, the AT&T blog piece is an old fashioned hatchet job. The claims of Sprint "disinvestment" in rural areas in this case are largely contradictory to the facts. And the disparagement from AT&T is hypocritical, as it conveniently ignores AT&T’s own neglect of rural areas, especially those where it holds only PCS 1900 MHz spectrum.
The rural coverage in question in Kansas and Oklahoma was constructed and is managed by Cellular Network Partnership d/b/a Pioneer Cellular. Sprint, as part of its Sprint Rural Alliance program, assigned portions of its PCS 1900 MHz spectrum seven years ago to Pioneer so that Pioneer could greatly expand its services to adjacent rural areas.
And here is an excerpt from the
"The proposed transaction will serve the public interest by allowing CNP to expand its wireless telecommunications network to provide high quality, advanced communications services that achieve good coverage throughout the areas in which its customers live and work. In this regard, a grant of the instant application will not only bolster an existing wireless competitor in the subject market areas, but will also further the Commission’s stated objective of expediting the provision of advanced technologies to rural areas."
So, Sprint enabled increased investment – not "disinvestment," as Quinn incorrectly claims – improved wireless coverage, and enhanced competition in underserved areas in Kansas and Oklahoma. Rural residents benefited, Pioneer benefited, even Sprint benefited. It was a win-win all around.
In a quid pro quo for that spectrum investment, Sprint was able to offer Pioneer footprint as pseudo native Sprint coverage. Obviously, that arrangement is coming to an end, with a more traditional roaming agreement to follow. Why? Only Sprint and Pioneer know for certain. But Pioneer has inked a pact with Verizon Wireless now, having joined VZW's LTE in Rural America program. So, that change in allegiance probably played a big role in the decision to end the Sprint-Pioneer arrangement.
Regardless, AT&T’s criticism is misplaced. Sprint's infusion of spectrum has allowed a small carrier over the past seven years to expand rural coverage and deliver 3G mobile broadband to communities in Kansas and Oklahoma that generally lack choices in wireless or even wired Internet access. That type of universally beneficial cooperation in the industry should be cheered, not derided.
And has the irony been lost on AT&T that it, too, relies upon roaming coverage in several counties in southern Kansas where Sprint-Pioneer have coverage? (see image above).AT&T lobs criticism at Sprint for soon to be roaming on Pioneer where Sprint has its own spectrum, but the same is true for AT&T. AT&T holds spectrum in these counties but has not built it out.
Moreover, if AT&T truly wants to talk about "disinvestment" in rural areas, then Quinn really should turn the mirror upon his employer. For example, AT&T and its predecessors have held PCS 1900 MHz licenses for several quite rural Basic Trading Areas in North and South Dakota for the past 15 years. The FCC five year construction requirement deadlines for those licenses came up in 2002. AT&T met its five year benchmark by deploying typically single cell site "license protection" coverage in only the largest city in each BTA, often just barely meeting the minimum 25 percent population coverage. And AT&T proceeded to stand pat on that token coverage for the better part of a decade.
To illustrate, compare an AT&T 2009 coverage map to the Aberdeen, SD and Minot, ND
BTAs buildout coverage maps filed with the FCC in 2002. In the intervening years, AT&T failed to invest beyond the minimum coverage required to retain its licenses in the Dakotas and, instead, relied upon roaming for better than 90 percent of its coverage. Yet, Quinn has the temerity to castigate Sprint for strategically using roaming partners. (Story continues below...)
It was only once VZW acquired Alltel and was required to divest numerous properties – AT&T conveniently was the acquirer of divested Cellular 850 MHz spectrum with superior propagation characteristics and an already constructed network across the Dakotas – that AT&T finally took an active interest in both states about 18 months ago. AT&T knows all too well that PCS 1900 MHz propagation is a challenge, both technically and economically, to make work in highly rural areas. For AT&T to hold Sprint and its PCS 1900 MHz spectrum to a higher standard is really quite disingenuous.
Furthermore, the situation in the Dakotas is not an isolated occurrence. Rather, it is really a microcosm of AT&T's approach to rural deployment in general. AT&T started its 3G W-CDMA network overlay more than six years ago. And, believe it or not, AT&T still is not even close to finished. A glance over an AT&T coverage map from late 2011 shows that large swaths of 2G GSM/GPRS/EDGE coverage (unstriped orange on the map) linger in Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, South Carolina, Texas (AT&T's home state, no less), Wisconsin, Washington, etc. Why has AT&T been so slow to bring the benefits of 3G W-CDMA to these areas and their residents? That is a very good question, and one that AT&T should be made to answer, especially after AT&T made such audacious claims that its failed merger with T-Mobile would have emboldened AT&T to expand rural 4G LTE deployment to 98 percent of the population. AT&T’s slow and selective 3G W-CDMA roll out would seem to suggest just the opposite. (Story continues below...)
AT&T National 2011 3G/4G Coverage Map. Click on image to enlarge.
In the end, this rebuttal is intended primarily to bring a more complete set of facts to the discussion. Nearly all wireless carriers are at least sometimes guilty of putting their own financial interests ahead of the public interest by deploying minimal “license protection” coverage, passing over low population density areas, etc. But, additionally, AT&T, in its failed T-Mobile merger bid and otherwise, has shown a disturbing corporate willingness to play fast and loose with the truth in order to achieve its aims. And, sadly, the trend continues with Quinn’s recent AT&T Public Policy Blog post. That is unacceptable and cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged.
Sources: FCC, AT&T, Sprint, Howard Forums