By Amy Martino
Steven Berry helms the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA), an advocacy group representing wireless carriers across the nation. The space is changing dramatically as new legislation opens up access to the spectrum for a wider range of providers. During Berry’s tenure as president and chief executive officer, CCA’s budget has grown from $900,000 to $5.4 million, with $1.6 million in reserves.
How has the association changed over your five-year tenure as president and CEO?
Steven Berry: When I first came here it was RCA, the Rural Cellular Association. The board—CEOs of smaller carriers like C Spire Wireless, nTelos Wireless, US Cellular, and SouthernLINC—made the decision to put more resources into advocacy because the stakes were so high that if they did not create an ecosystem of access to critical inputs—like spectrum, devices, and roaming—then those smaller companies would disappear. A few years later, new members like Sprint and T-Mobile joined because they realized that they had more in common policy-wise with the smaller carriers than they did with the larger two carriers [AT&T and Verizon], and we rebranded to the Competitive Carriers Association to reflect our members’ shared interest in having a competitive wireless industry.
What has this transition been like?
Berry: Consolidation has taken a toll—we’ve lost four of what I call tier-two carriers in the last two years, mainly to acquisitions by AT&T and Verizon—but had the board not recognized the need to redefine the policy, goals, and conversation in DC, I think the wireless lay of the land would be significantly different today.
How have small carriers benefited the industry and consumers?
Berry: If you look back at some of the things we now consider staples in the wireless world, like value-priced data packages and unlimited nights and weekends, these were innovative concepts developed by small carriers in the marketplace. It allowed them to get your attention as a consumer. In many instances, the smaller carrier can be more agile.
For example, right now hyper-local content is a differentiator for some of our small carriers. If you want to know what’s going on at the local high school, they have apps that allow you to follow the local soccer or lacrosse teams. And what happens is some of these differentiators feed into the preferences of the consumer base of the large carriers, and then they adopt them. That constant innovation is something I think you could miss very easily if you don’t have someone willing to take a little more risk in the marketplace. More players in the industry also mean more competitive pricing for consumers.
How have you balanced the interests of CCA’s smaller and larger members?
Berry: That’s part of the association magic—we’ve been very successful in defining common themes. Sometimes Sprint and T-Mobile have to modify their preferences a little in order to accommodate the entire ecosystem of carriers, and they’ve been extremely valuable to the smaller carriers that have very few resources to deploy in an advocacy role. The research capabilities that Sprint and T-Mobile can bring to the table are extremely helpful.
And of course these small carriers bring something else to the advocacy table that’s extremely valuable, and that’s their willingness to come to Washington to meet with their members of Congress. They help put a local face to legitimate concerns, which is a huge benefit to our advocacy efforts, and that’s something the small carriers bring that a company cannot buy. We represent real companies providing services, in some instances maybe the only carrier that’s willing to provide coverage in a rural area, and that gives us some cachet and credibility in Washington, DC.
What role will the upcoming 600 MHz incentive auction play in keeping the industry competitive?
Berry: The 600 MHz auction is low-band spectrum, and that’s key because low-band spectrum has propagation characteristics that are unique not only in urban and suburban America, but also in rural America: It propagates farther, and you get more efficiency. It penetrates walls, buildings, elevators, forests, trees, long distances—all the places where consumers have now defined their mobile device usage.
It may be another decade before we have a greenfield spectrum opportunity to build networks and create an ecosystem, so every small carrier and large carrier—AT&T and Verizon included—has to get in to the 600 MHz band if they want 4G, LTE, high-speed, mobile broadband connectivity. So it’s that interoperable, 600 MHz spectrum that will be the common platform of this 4G advanced and 5G world, and you’re going to have to get there if you want to be competitive.
What have you done to make this auction competitive for your members?
Berry: One of the successes we had with the proposed rules was ensuring that the 600 MHz spectrum would be auctioned off in areas small enough for our members to be able to bid, win, and purchase spectrum in their network footprint. Additionally, the FCC created what they call a reserve, which gives the small carriers an opportunity to bid on that spectrum and get into the ecosystem. That’s a huge advance in the policy thinking of the FCC in order to sustain a competitive wireless industry. And I don’t think that would have happened without CCA bringing all the small carriers together and being able to articulate that position with one voice.
Where do you see the industry heading next?
Berry: I call it the fourth wave of technology—not just 4G, but fourth wave. You’re going to have managed, personalized, and cloud-based services on these networks, and you’re going to want to be able to access those any time, regardless of location. And wireless plays a big role in that consumer-satisfaction requirement. Expectations are that there will be another trillion dollars in new revenue opportunities in the next five years for services and activities that are just now being invented, so the innovation continues to march on, and the role wireless plays is going to be the future of the industry.