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Rural providers find their niche at NTCA Wireless Symposium.

With the latest and greatest wireless technology on center stage, a record-breaking crowd of roughly 200 people, including attendees, speakers and vendors, gathered for NTCA's 2002 Wireless Symposium in Nashville, Tenn., October 7-8.

Unlike many other industry conferences, the business briefing, which carried the tagline "Discover and Define Rural Telecom's Next Frontier," was specifically focused on the rural wireless sector, with topics and technologies applicable to small, independent telecom carriers. This year's program included general sessions, panel discussions and a technology showcase.

The 2002 NTCA Wireless Symposium allowed its attendees to customize their conference experience by giving them the option to select from three technology specific tracks: mobile wireless, fixed wireless and wireless local area networks (WLANs). Both the mobile and the fixed wireless tracks contained panel sessions in which NTCA members gave accounts of their deployments and answered questions on the challenges they face in the wireless market today Because WLANs are not widely deployed across rural America, track three incorporated a rural WLAN case study, rather than a member panel.

Among the most notable sessions of the afternoon was a joint effort in the mobile wireless track, presented by NTCA associate member company Bluegrass Cellular (Elizabethtown, Ky.) and its wireless solutions provider Boston Communications Group Inc. (BCGI). Damian Sazama, Bluegrass' vice president of sales and marketing, and Tom Erskine, BCGI's vice president of product development, delivered an informative session and case study, entitled "Will Prepaid Work in Rural America?"

An advocate of prepaid wireless service in rural areas, Erskine stressed to wireless carriers that, to be successful, they must aggressively manage the operational costs of prepaid services. "This can be achieved by establishing channels for customers to help themselves, such as in-call messaging and Web-based self-care, to minimize customer care costs," he said.

In addition, Erskine advised that the cost of cash collection could be reduced significantly through the use of alternative devices, such as ATM machines, for the recharging of prepaid accounts.

According to Sazama, 30% of applicants for Bluegrass' mobile wireless service do not meet the company's credit requirements. To reach this "credit challenged" sector of the population, and to target the youth and military markets, Bluegrass decided to offer prepaid wireless service. While some wireless carriers are reluctant to offer "commitment-free" prepaid services for fear of cannibalizing their current subscriber bases, Bluegrass views its prepaid customers as their post-paid users of tomorrow.

Sazama advised wireless carriers to take their prepaid customers seriously, saying, "You have to continually update your offerings for prepaid as you do for postpaid. Don't make prepaid customers feel less important than your postpaid [customers]."

Other highlights of this year's wireless symposium included: a regulatory update of the legal issues and requirements facing small, independent wireless carriers and general sessions on 700 MHz, multichannel video distribution and data service (MVDDS), and enhanced 911 service.
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Title Annotation:National Telepbone Cooperative Association
Author:Platis, Athena
Publication:The Exchange
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2002
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