Summary:

Cricket parent Leap Wireless has become the latest carrier to join Devicescape’s curated virtual hotspot network. Rather than build hotspots themselves, Leap and other regional and rural operators are tapping the world of open Wi-Fi.

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Cricket Communications is just a few regulatory approvals away from being swallowed up by AT&T, but that hasn’t stopped the regional mobile carrier from devising new services for its customers. Cricket’s corporate parent Leap Wireless on Tuesday unveiled a new feature called Data Connection Optimizer that automatically connects Cricket smartphones to millions of open hotspots in coffee shops, malls, parks and other public areas around the country.

The brains behind Optimizer is Devicescape, which maintains a crowdsourced database of high-speed open Wi-Fi access points throughout the world and supplies connection management software that allows phones to seamlessly link to them. While anyone can download Devicescape’s consumer app, an increasing number of carriers and equipment makers are using its curated virtual network as a means to offload data traffic from their 3G and 4G networks. Intel, Nokia, U.S. Cellular, C Spire and Republic Wireless all use Devicescape’s software, as did  MetroPCS before it was acquired by T-Mobile.

The more successful Devicescape is in attracting customers, the more powerful its network becomes. It’s crowdsourced model means that phones loaded with its software are not only connecting to identified hotspots, but they’re also on the constant hunt for new ones. In the last year, the number of hotspots on its U.S. network has grown from 8 million to 16 million.

The Cricket deal was announced at the Competitive Carrier Association’s annual conference in Las Vegas, but it may only be the first of many deals that Devicescape could pen with regional and rural operators in the U.S. Devicescape said it has entered into a deal with the CCA that would make its virtual network available to the organization’s members. That doesn’t mean that the CCA’s hundreds of carriers will have automatic access to the hotspot network, but the CCA is offering up a common framework contract that makes it easier for small carriers to work with Devicescape, the company said.

It’s been a tough slog for smaller carriers to keep up with the country’s nationwide operators. They’ve been limited by a lack of spectrum, resources and the lack of interoperability among smartphones. Yet rural customers are demanding the same types of devices and mobile broadband services offered by the big four.

A survey conducted by Current Analysis for the CCA found that 80 percent of rural consumers who plan to purchase a new device in the next three months said they would purchase a smartphone. Another 10 percent said they would purchase a tablet, while the remaining 10 percent had plans to buy a feature phone. Wi-Fi might be one way for the small operators to keep up with their larger peers.

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