Marek's take

Verizon’s October 19 announcement that it was buying Kentucky rural wireless operator Bluegrass Cellular for an undisclosed quantity was touted as a transfer by Verizon to strengthen its rural protection. The deal, which is topic to FCC approval, is anticipated to shut in early 2021 and Bluegrass Mobile clients will seemingly seamlessly transition to Verizon’s community due to Bluegrass Mobile’s long-standing relationship with Verizon. 

The transfer didn’t come as a shock to many. For the previous decade Bluegrass has been a part of Verizon’s LTE Rural America program. That program was revolutionary as a result of Verizon let these members of the LTE America program lease a few of its 700 MHz spectrum and likewise its AWS-1 spectrum to construct out their LTE networks. Verizon additionally supplied these members with entry to the corporate’s community distributors and its LTE gadget portfolio. In return, the LTE Rural America members like Bluegrass grew to become reciprocal roaming companions to Verizon, which allowed the operator to offer its clients entry to rural LTE protection rapidly and cheaply.

“A whole lot of these small wi-fi operators are household companies,” mentioned Roger Entner, founding father of Recon Analytics. When requested whether or not we must always count on extra acquisitions like this, Entner mentioned sure. “It’s a retirement wave,” he added, noting that lots of the CEOs of those smaller operators are nearing retirement age. 

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As well as, Entner mentioned that it is a good time for smaller carriers to promote to the bigger gamers like Verizon as a result of that manner they don’t have to fret about making the transition to 5G and they are often acquired whereas their corporations nonetheless have robust valuations.

Timing is correct

From Verizon’s perspective, the acquisition of Bluegrass permits the corporate so as to add to its rural footprint at a really strategic time. Each T-Cell and Verizon have just lately began providing LTE mounted wi-fi companies in lots of markets (together with rural areas) after seeing an uptick in demand as extra individuals work and examine from residence because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As well as, each operators are additionally hoping to seize a few of the broadband clients in AT&T’s DSL footprint now that the corporate has mentioned it’ll not settle for new DSL orders.

And competitor T-Cell has made it clear that it’s going to aggressively go after the agricultural U.S. with its 5G protection. Neville Ray, T-Cell’s president of networks, advised attendees on the Aggressive Carriers Affiliation (CCA) digital convention final week, that the corporate was rolling out its 5G service on its 2.5 GHz mid-band spectrum at a “livid tempo” and including 1,000 mid-band 5G cell websites each month. Ray particularly mentioned that the corporate was including service to smaller cities and rural areas as nicely are city areas. As well as, he additionally mentioned that T-Cell would provide 5G mounted wi-fi service to 50% of U.S. households within the subsequent six years.

Quick followers or no followers?

Smaller operators could favor being acquired as an alternative of getting to place some huge cash towards deploying 5G of their markets. Though the FCC is making an attempt to assist offset the prices of 5G by proposing a $9 billion fund to assist rural 5G deployments, it’ll seemingly take a while earlier than that funding is obtainable as it’s imagined to subsidize deployments over a 10-year time period. The fee is presently slated to vote on a framework for the fund this week.   

And whereas it’s commonplace for smaller operators to let the larger Tier 1 carriers deploy new applied sciences first after which observe with their deployments later (we noticed this with 3G and 4G), there may be rising strain to get 5G rolling, significantly because the three Tier 1 operators have all introduced that they’ve nationwide 5G footprints.

And apparently smaller operators are beginning to really feel some strain. Throughout final week’s CCA convention, I sat in on a panel referred to as “Promoting 4G in a 5G World.” Whereas the subject appeared on course for CCA members, lots of that are rural operators, I used to be shocked to listen to panelists at a wi-fi business present recommend that there isn’t a actual worth in 5G. As Al Dummer, director of promoting at Cellcom, famous: “Most customers which might be searching for the leading edge aren’t hanging with us anyway.” 

Maybe not. However as the larger operators like T-Cell begin to make inroads in rural markets with 5G, these smaller operators are going to should be able to compete.