This piece was originally published in the 2015 Super Mobility Week Official Show Daily. 

Think the Big Four traditional carriers will be the only ones strutting their stuff at CTIA this year? Think again. The Rural Wireless Association (RWA), a group of wireless carriers who each serve fewer than 100,000 subscribers, will also be on hand at the show hosting their own Rural Wireless Summit to help rural carriers to explore the latest innovations and trends in mobility and connect with their peers.

To find out what’s trending at the top of the association’s news feed this year, we checked in with CEO Tanya Sullivan for her views on the state of the industry, the upcoming incentive auction and the future of wireless network innovation.

Wireless Week: What is the RWA hoping to accomplish at Super Mobility Week?

Tanya Sullivan: We are excited to be part of Super Mobility 2015 and provide a forum for regional and rural carriers to come together and discuss challenges, opportunities and solutions for improving mobility in rural markets. We hope that being part of the show will allow our attendees to not only discuss their unique situations with peers, but also gain perspectives from the many different facets of the wireless industry and incorporate that knowledge into their business.

WW: Is there any particular issue or topic in the industry you’re looking forward to learning more/sharing ideas about?

Sullivan: In an industry as vibrant as ours, there are always new and evolving things to learn more about – VOLTE, Small Cells, 5G, new products, and regulatory developments like the Incentive Auction and the Open Internet Order. The best part about events like the Rural Wireless Summit is that they provide an opportunity for collaboration between carriers and other businesses. Attendees can find solutions to their business issues, meet partners with whom they can tackle new projects, and find economies of scale that can help them to meet their bottom line.

WW: What do you feel is the biggest challenge facing the rural carriers today?

Sullivan: Securing affordable data roaming rates is one challenge – with only a few exceptions, RWA carrier members provide commercial wireless services within the borders of a single state, and often times, in just a handful of rural counties. While the country’s four nationwide carriers use domestic roaming to augment relative holes in their coast-to-coast networks, RWA members rely on roaming to actually provide “nationwide coverage,” which itself is a pre-requisite to remaining competitive in the retail marketplace. Rural wireless carriers also need sufficient and reliable Universal Service support to expand and sustain 4G LTE mobile services in high-cost areas. Procuring the “latest and greatest” wireless devices for rural consumers also remains an issue – small carriers simply lack the economies of scale and market power enjoyed by the large carriers.

WW: Can you speak a little bit to how you’re seeing the networks evolve and what you feel is the next focus for carriers as they seek to keep up with the demand for data?

Sullivan: The U.S. is the world’s leader in 4G LTE. The iPhone was created here. I don’t see the U.S. wireless industry slowing down, and I don’t see the rural wireless industry slowing down. Americans’ ever-increasing demand for data presents both challenges and opportunities for today’s carriers. Networks will continue to evolve and technology will continue to improve and become more efficient. The evolution to 5G is going to be a hot topic at this year’s CTIA Super Mobility event. Firing up more spectrum is the most obvious way to address the demand for data, but that is easier said than done. It takes a long time to get new spectrum to market. Right now, wireless carriers are introducing small cells into their networks to ease congestion and finding other ways to address their subscribers’ ever increasing demand for data.

WW: Are you happy with the FCC’s new rules for the upcoming incentive auction and the size of the reserve?

Sullivan: RWA worked very closely with FCC staff on the rules for the Incentive Auction – especially on the new, first-ever 15 percent Rural Service Provider Bidding Credit. This bidding credit is a big deal for rural wireless providers, and we think it will help them be successful in the Incentive Auction. RWA also successfully advocated for a bidding credit cap in less populous markets – another measure that will help to level the playing field amongst all credit-eligible entities. RWA is pleased that the Incentive Auction will include a spectrum reserve, and is particularly pleased that there will be a 20 MHz cap on the total amount of reserve spectrum that any entity can acquire in less populous markets. This will help to ensure there is sufficient reserve spectrum, not just for nationwide carriers, but for smaller regional carriers as well – a single large reserve-eligible carrier won’t be able to run the table.

WW: What do you think of the state of competition in rural areas and do you feel customers have enough choice in those markets?

Sullivan: RWA does not share the same view as the nationwide carriers that the overall wireless industry is highly competitive. Is there competition in rural areas? It depends. There are many rural areas where there are only one or two providers. There are other areas where there may never be more than one or two providers. But, we do know this – the wireless carriers that serve rural areas are extremely dedicated to their subscribers.

Source: Q&A: Rural Carriers Seek Level Playing Field