Panhandle Telephone Cooperative is about to switch on LTE service in rural Oklahoma, and it won't do it alone: It's getting help from the NetAmerica Alliance.

The launch marks the first commercial deployment for the group, which opened its doors just one year ago to help regional operators move to LTE.

Operators use their own spectrum and build and operate their networks, and NetAmerica provides them with a network operation center and an IMS core it calls the SuperCenter and a unified national brand dubbed Bonfire, as well as marketing, training, and network monitoring and support.

"We don't think they can do everything on their own," NetAmerica CEO Roger Hutton says. "We bring people together in a way that creates scale and spreads costs across a larger group of customers."

NetAmerica aims to give providers like Panhandle access to services they couldn't afford on their own.

It's a strength-in-numbers strategy taken to the LTE era.

Panhandle's March 31 launch will light up 45 cell sites spanning 5,000 square miles and a population of nearly 30,000 people. The network is slated go live in Texas sometime later this year.

CEO Ron Strecker says the cost of rolling out LTE on its own would have been prohibitive without NetAmerica, especially the investment in the evolved packet core.

"For a small carrier, that's a ridiculously large investment to make," Strecker says.

Panhandle is providing its customers with an LTE-based in-home router that provides both Internet and VoIP service for the initial deployment, and Strecker says it plans to come out with USB dongles and smartphones as they become available.

Up to 300 customers currently using WiMAX will be moved to the new LTE service this week, followed by about 800 subscribers currently using extended DSL. Panhandle is going to foot the bill for the new LTE CPEs and plans to use the same pricing scale it currently offers for subscribers within city limits, Strecker says.

NetAmerica members Peoples Telephone Cooperative and Etex Telephone Cooperative are also getting set for commercial launch, along with another provider that has not yet been disclosed. The three companies participated in trials with the alliance.

The services that NetAmerica provides its members with aren't free, of course. It declined to disclose the fees it charges to its customers, but Hutton said rates are calculated as a percentage of revenue, with additional charges based on the size of the network and number of customers. Both Hutton and Strecker described the rates as "very reasonable."