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6 December 2022

Verizon to buy West Central in another sign of the death of local US operators

By Wireless Watch Staff

The USA has traditionally been a dense patchwork of small local operators, including cellular, fixed-line and fixed wireless access (FWA). However, in recent years, more and more of the small mobile operators have consolidated and been acquired by larger players, as the nationwide MNOs look to control their own coverage and quality of experience rather than relying on roaming deals with local providers that lack the resources to deploy cutting-edge networks.

The latest to fall is West Central Wireless, whose base is centered on San Angelo in mid-Texas, but which is to be acquired by Verizon. The smaller firm sent a letter to its subscribers saying it had “entered into a transaction with Verizon that will result in us discontinuing our mobile and fixed wireless operations in your area towards mid-2023”.

Verizon it had “signed an agreement to acquire select spectrum and wireless assets of West Central Wireless. The acquisition is subject to FCC approval and other conditions and is expected to close in mid-2023.” The deal follows Verizon’s acquisitions, in recent years, of Chariton Valley Communications in Missouri, Triangle Mobile in Montana, Bluegrass Cellular in Kentucky, Chat Mobility in Iowa and Blue Wireless in New York and Pennsylvania.

West Central offers FWA and mobile services. It stopped activating new customers for cellular and Internet services on November 30 but says it will continue to upgrade existing customers’ handsets until the end of the second quarter 2023, or while supplies last, and it will also continue to repair or replace fixed CPE.

According to Jeff Moore, analyst with Wave7 Research, West Central covers 353,000 citizens in its footprint, including the city of San Angelo, which has 100,000 residents.

For Verizon, the purchase will fill a gap in its spectrum coverage, which according to spectrum tracking company AllNet Insights, is about the same size and shape as West Central’s footprint. The smaller operators owns spectrum in 600 MHz and 2.5 GHz, though it is possible that Verizon would sell the 2.5 GHz assets to T-Mobile, since it does not use this band for 5G.

A string of acquisitions in recent years has led observers to predict the demise of the USA’s local operators, though the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA), which represents them, insists there are still plenty of independent providers left. At the CCA’s annual conference in September, incoming president and CEO Tim Donovan said: “There has been consolidation. But there are still a lot of strong, independent small carriers.” However, the CCA does not disclose the number of its members.

Moore disagrees, writing in a blog post: “Buffaloes once roamed the plains, great in number. But there was excessive hunting of these majestic beasts and while they still live in select areas, their herds are not what they used to be. It’s the same with regional and rural wireless carriers.” He argues that the cablecos have largely replaced regional and local operators in providing localized competition for the main MNOs.

However, one of those cablecos, Altice USA, has been considering a sale of Suddenlink, a division largely focused on rural areas of southern and central USA. But the firm has decided not to sell after all and said in a statement last week: “The Board of Directors has unanimously determined that continuing to operate Suddenlink and pursuing the Company’s long-term business plan represents the best path forward for Altice USA and its stockholders.”