AT&T Asks FCC to Gauge How Much Spectrum Each Telecom Gets

AT&T asked the FCC to apply a screen on mid-band spectrum holdings. If adopted, the concept could have significant consequences for chief rivals T-Mobile and Verizon, notes CNBC.

That’s because those carriers have amassed significant mid-band spectrum holdings considered to be the “sweet spot” for 5G networks, according to industry experts. T-Mobile gained significant spectrum through its highly-contested acquisition of Sprint, and Verizon won more than 3,500 C-band licenses in Auction 107 in February, Inside Towers reported.

AT&T has made some spectrum gains, but “significant debt” has weighed down the company, according to the account. The carrier believes a screen would be useful so it doesn’t get locked out of prime 5G spectrum.  

A mid-band spectrum screen would be similar to those already in place for other types of spectrum, according to AT&T EVP Federal Regulatory Relations Joan Marsh. “Like the separate screens already established for high- and low-band spectrum, we believe that such a tool would assist the Commission in identifying spectrum aggregations that may cause competitive harm by allowing a licensee to hold so much mid-band spectrum in a given market that it becomes impossible for others to compete effectively,” she wrote in a blog post.

She stressed the screen is not a cap, but rather, “a filter that the FCC can use to identify spectrum acquisitions that trigger more detailed consideration of the potential for competitive harms.” She said the screen allows the Commission to identify acquisitions that may raise competitive concerns from those which do not.

It would be triggered when a spectrum acquisition would result in a single company holding more than a third of the relevant frequencies in a market. “To the extent that such blocks become unduly concentrated in the hands of one to two licensees, 5G competition is likely to falter,” she wrote.  

In its petition, AT&T notes that such rules are needed to “answer the President’s call for measures designed to help avoid excessive concentration of spectrum license holdings in the United States, so as to prevent spectrum stockpiling, warehousing of spectrum by licensees, or the creation of barriers to entry.”

AT&T says the Commission has generally defined 5G mid-band spectrum as the expanse from 2.5 GHz to 6 GHz. “Unlike legacy mobile spectrum between 600 MHz and 2.5 GHz, mid-band spectrum is unencumbered by licensing policies designed for prior-generation technologies: it is both unpaired and available in the wide contiguous swaths needed for the highest-performance 5G functionality,” says AT&T. “Its shorter wavelengths also permit greater use of capacity-enhancing ‘massive MIMO’ antenna arrays.”

The telecom notes that T-Mobile gained its “vast percentage” of mid-band spectrum as its corporate predecessors “Sprint and Clearwire quietly accumulated enormous EBS/BRS assets in the 2.5 GHz band. They did so outside of any auction context and downplayed that band’s utility to keep it out of the spectrum screen,” writes AT&T. It also stressed that T-Mobile was allowed to acquire Sprint without “any” spectrum divestitures and has bragged to Wall Street it will dominate its rivals in 5G.

Doing that, says AT&T, meant the FCC “abandoned its previous commitment to maintaining four genuine nationwide providers and trivialized its overall spectrum screen.” It notes that then Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said the “auction” for remaining 2.5 GHz spectrum “’structurally advantages a single nationwide carrier’—T-Mobile.”

AT&T also says T-Mobile disparaged the value of C-band spectrum before that auction, but participated anyway, and “bid up prices by placing substantial bids of its own, and ultimately obtained 40 megahertz in many markets.” It calls that an “anticompetitive mid-band spectrum strategy” that supports the need for a spectrum screen like the one it’s proposing.

T-Mobile, Verizon and the FCC didn’t respond to requests for comment on the petition. 

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

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