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Meet the Cellcos Serving Rural America: Part 1

Trends

By Tom LeinsApr 13, 2022

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The U.S. mobile market is notoriously ultra-competitive, and household names like Sprint aren't the only ones to have been squeezed out in recent years.

Since 2020, Verizon Wireless has snapped up regional players such as Chat Mobility, Bluegrass Cellular, Triangle Mobile, and Chariton Valley Communications.

Tellingly, all four operators were participants in the telecom giant’s “LTE in Rural America” program, which leased 700MHz of spectrum to regional players in areas where Verizon had no intention of deploying infrastructure. After going live in 2010, the project was completed in October 2015, when all 21 participants were confirmed to be operational.

At the program’s peak, operators collectively covered more than 2.7 million people across 169 rural counties in 15 states.

Despite Verizon’s low-key takeover spree, dozens of smaller players continue to thrive in the U.S. This week we take a deep dive into the regional cellular scene and uncover the cellcos serving rural America.

Appalachian Wireless

Headquarters: Ivel, Kentucky
Ownership:
East Kentucky Network, owned by Coalfields Telephone, Foothills Rural Telephone, Mountain Rural Telephone, Peoples Rural Telephone, and Thacker-Grigsby Telephone
Mobile Coverage:
Eastern Kentucky

Overview

Appalachian Wireless—launched in 1991—bills itself as “Eastern Kentucky's leading provider of high quality telecommunications products and services.”

In October 2011, Appalachian Wireless signed up for the Verizon Wireless “LTE in Rural America” program. Under the terms of this agreement, Verizon leased the cellco spectrum in the 700MHz “Upper C” block. The network went live in June 2013.

In a bid to keep pace with its nationwide rivals, Appalachian Wireless has already disclosed plans to turn off its 3G network by December 31, 2022.

In a bid to keep pace with its nationwide rivals, Appalachian Wireless has already disclosed plans to turn off its 3G network by December 31, 2022, and is already plotting a 5G upgrade.

East Kentucky Network acquired 5G-suitable licenses in both Auction 107 (3.7GHz) and Auction 110 (3.45GHz), paying the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) around $11.8 million for the frequencies.

East Kentucky Network also operates a fiber-optic broadband network throughout the mountains of eastern Kentucky.

Carolina West Wireless

Headquarters: Wilkesboro, North Carolina
Ownership:
Skyline Telephone and Surry Telephone
Mobile Coverage:
Western North Carolina

Overview

Formed in 1991 and headquartered in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, Carolina West Wireless is owned by co-investors Skyline Telephone and Surry Telephone.

Carolina West Wireless covers eleven counties, serves around 90,000 customers via 300 cell towers, and owns rights to spectrum in the 600MHz, 700MHz, 850MHz, 1900MHz, and 2100MHz bands.

In May 2019, the company signed a multi-year network modernization deal with Swedish vendor Ericsson. Under the agreement, Ericsson agreed to provide its Ericsson Fast VoLTE Launch solution to Carolina West Wireless, enabling the carrier to offer VoLTE, Wi-Fi calling, and future-enriched communication services.

More recently, Carolina West Wireless has taken steps to secure 5G-suitable spectrum in FCC frequency sales. The cellco paid $15.8 million for a number of 3.7GHz licenses in Auction 107, followed by a $3.8 million bid for 3.45GHz concessions in Auction 110.

Cellcom

Headquarters: Green Bay, Wisconsin
Ownership:
Nsight Telservices, owned by the Riordan family
Mobile Coverage:
Wisconsin and Upper Michigan

Overview

Green Bay-based Cellcom was launched back in 1987 as a subsidiary of regional telco Nsight Telservices, and currently serves users in northeastern and central Wisconsin and in Michigan’s upper peninsula.

In April 2012, Cellcom announced that its LTE network had gone live in seven areas of northeastern and central Wisconsin; the network was later extended across Cellcom’s footprint.

More recently, in February 2022, Cellcom launched 5G technology in parts of Brown County, Wisconsin. The 5G network utilizes non-standalone (NSA) architecture, with radio equipment supplied by Ericsson and an NSA packet core from Cisco.

Although Cellcom is said to be using the 600MHz and 850MHz bands for 5G, the company has also scooped up multiple blocks of mmWave spectrum in successive FCC auctions.

Although Cellcom is said to be using the 600MHz and 850MHz bands for 5G, the company has also scooped up multiple blocks of millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum in successive FCC auctions.

Cellcom spent $928,550 for 28GHz spectrum (Auction 101), winning licenses in six Wisconsin counties. In the second auction of mmWave spectrum, the company invested $51,000 and secured two 24GHz concessions (Auction 102). Cellcom went on to pay $4.7 million for six 3.45GHz–3.55GHz licenses in Auction 110.

Cellular One

Headquarters: Show Low, Arizona
Ownership:
Smith Bagley Inc, controlled by Elizabeth Frawley Bagley (60%)
Mobile Coverage:
Rural Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah

Overview

The Cellular One brand name has an illustrious history in the U.S.—changing hands multiple times since its initial introduction way back in 1977. Now, however, it is only used by a handful of small-scale mobile providers, including Cellular One of Northeast Arizona.

Cellular One operates in rural Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah and delivers mobile coverage to underserved tribal lands and rural communities in the American Southwest. The company runs a network of more than 255 cell sites, covering 60,000 square miles.

Parent company Smith Bagley Inc is a regular bidder in FCC spectrum auctions, and secured 5G-suitable 3.7GHz frequencies in Auction 107, paying $5.6 million.

Choice NTUA Wireless

Headquarters: Chinle, Arizona
Ownership:
Joint venture between Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) and telecom group ATN International
Mobile Coverage:
Navajo Nation (Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico)

Overview

Choice NTUA Wireless—a facilities-based carrier formally launched in 2014—provides 4G LTE connectivity across the Navajo Nation, with 98% of its overall network supporting 4G.

In October 2020, Choice NTUA Wireless selected Nokia to deploy a 4G fixed-wireless network, using a combination of spectrum in the 600MHz, 2.5GHz, and 3.5GHz bands.

Via holding company SAL Spectrum, co-owner ATN International successfully bid $20.397 million for 1,569 3.5GHz licenses in the recent FCC Auction 105 spectrum sale.

Note: The Navajo Nation, which spans 27,000 square miles across Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, is the largest land area retained by an indigenous tribe in the U.S. By area, it is larger than ten U.S. states, namely: West Virginia, Maryland, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island.

Illinois Valley Cellular

Headquarters: Marseilles, Illinois
Ownership:
Family-owned by Rauh Enterprises and the Rauh Family Trust; majority stake held by Marseilles Cellular holding company
Mobile Coverage:
North-Central Illinois

Overview

Illinois Valley Cellular—one of the first wireless phone operators in Illinois—provides service to eight counties, which run from the Indiana state line to south of Chicago, north of Peoria, and toward the Iowa state line.

Illinois Valley Cellular presides over a Rural Service Area that comprises over 250,000 people in north-central Illinois, serving LaSalle, Bureau, Putnam, Marshall, Stark, Livingston, Ford, and Iroquois counties.

In May 2014, Illinois Valley Cellular selected NewCore Wireless to host its 4G LTE network, and an LTE-Advanced upgrade went live in October 2019.

Inland Cellular

Headquarters: Lewiston, Idaho
Ownership:
Privately held, believed to be family-owned
Mobile Coverage:
Southeastern Washington and North-Central Idaho

Overview

After Harold Weis and his family grew Inland—originally Inland Telephone & Security—from a fixed-voice telephony and security company to a full-fledged cellular provider, the company began providing cellular service in 1989.

In 1989, Harold partnered with Saint John Co-op and Pioneer Telephone and began to buy and lease land for cellular towers all over eastern Washington and into the panhandle of Idaho. Today, Inland Cellular operates and manages 272 communication sites across Washington and Idaho.

In May 2019, Inland selected Open RAN supplier Parallel Wireless to deliver 600MHz 4G LTE coverage expansion and 5G upgradeability. The contract allowed Inland Cellular to offer VoLTE, while the eventual migration from 4G to 5G can be achieved through a simple software update.

In a 2020 interview with The Washington Post, Chip Damato, Director of Business Strategy at Inland Cellular, noted that cost was the main reason the cellco opted for an Open RAN network. Damato estimated that the technology has cut the price of each cell site by 40%, to about $20,000.

James Valley Telecommunications

Headquarters: Groton, South Dakota
Ownership:
Unknown, structured as a membership corporation
Mobile Coverage:
Groton, South Dakota

Overview

James Valley Telecommunications is the modern incarnation of the James Valley Cooperative Telephone Company, which was incorporated in September 1951.

After the sleet storm of 1950 destroyed miles of telephone lines that were never restored, locals secured a Rural Electrification Administration loan to rebuild the old system.

After the sleet storm of 1950 destroyed miles of telephone lines that were never restored, and locals secured a Rural Electrification Administration loan to rebuild the old system.

Today, James Valley operates a network that comprises 20 cell towers and sites throughout Groton and the surrounding towns to provide superior local network coverage.

As with many regional carriers, James Valley has partnered with nationwide coverage to offer extended connectivity.

Nex-Tech Wireless

Headquarters: Hays, Kansas
Ownership:
Co-owned by Rural Telephone, Golden Belt Telephone, and Mutual Telephone
Mobile Coverage:
Central and Western Kansas

Overview

Nex-Tech Wireless, a subsidiary of Rural Telephone, Golden Belt Telephone, and Mutual Telephone, offers wireless solutions to residents in 40 counties of central and western Kansas.

The former CDMA operator hired Ericsson to roll out a 4G LTE network in 2013.

In December 2021, Nex-Tech teamed up with Ericsson once again to commercially launch 5G capabilities in rural Kansas. The 5G technologies utilize Ericsson’s 5G Evolved Packet Core, Cloud IMS, and RAN products and solutions to support NSA 5G architecture in key locations across the operator’s coverage areas.

Nex-Tech paid $10.3 million for five 5G-suitable 3.7GHz licenses in Auction 107.

Look out for Part Two of this analysis in the coming weeks!

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Tom Leins

Tom Leins

Tom Leins is a Senior Research Analyst for TeleGeography’s GlobalComms Database. Based out of the company’s UK office, he also contributes to the company’s daily CommsUpdate newsletter, which includes his popular weekly MVNO Monday round-up. MVNO industry aside, Tom has developed a strong specialization in the U.S., Latin America, and the Caribbean, tracking mergers and acquisitions, spectrum auctions, regulatory developments, market opportunities, and growth trends.