Sprint is building a bigger LTE network with the help of rural carriers

Sprint(s s) has teamed up with the Competitive Carrier Association and the NetAmerica Alliance to form a kind of LTE cabal. Sprint and rural carriers are joining together to build broad coverage networks through roaming agreements, cooperation on devices and even spectrum sharing.

At the CCA’s conference in San Antonio, Sprint announced it is working with the rural carrier association to create low-cost reciprocal roaming agreements with and among its members. The idea is each carrier’s customers will be able to move on and off each other’s LTE networks without racking up big data roaming fees.

regional mobile carrier

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No specific rural operators were announced in the deal, but if they choose to participate they’ll get access to Sprint’s growing LTE network in cities and towns. Meanwhile Sprint will be able to expand its footprint into parts of the country its mobile broadband network doesn’t touch.

Normally this kind of agreement would be meaningless since Sprint and rural operators use completely different frequency bands. You can’t roam if your device can’t connect to the roaming network. But as part of the CCA deal, Sprint has agreed to include support on its devices for the 700 MHz band most carriers use, though it didn’t name any specific modems or handsets. If 700 MHz makes it into Sprint smartphones, it could give rural carriers access to a much bigger portfolio of devices as well as a nationwide network.

Finally, Sprint announced a separate deal with another rural carrier group, the NetAmerica Alliance, that will offer operators access to Sprint’s spectrum in areas where it doesn’t have LTE networks of its own. NetAmerica members that participate would build and run their own networks using Sprint’s 800 MHz and 1900 MHz PCS frequenices. Their customers would then tap into Sprint’s nationwide LTE network, while Sprint’s customers could roam onto their rural towers.

The setup is similar to the LTE in Rural America program Verizon(s vz) set up several years ago, where Big Red leased out its airwaves to regional operator partners. That program allowed carriers like Wisconsin’s Cellcom to bring LTE online quickly as well as get access to the fanciest 4G smartphones as soon as they became available.

Though Sprint is hardly a rural carrier, it has found a lot of common ground with regional operators as it looks for ways to compete against AT&T(s t) and Verizon. There are about 125 regional carriers in the U.S., but increasingly they’re confined to rural areas as the mid-tier city-focused operator becomes practically extinct. Leap Wireless was one of the last, and it was just gobbled up by AT&T.