Summary:

AT&T aims in three years to have a new LTE network up in the airwaves the FCC just approved for 4G use. In the rather plodding world of telecom, three years is a quick timeline. But AT&T has political and strategic reasons for moving soon.

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AT&T isn’t going to waste too much time putting a new LTE network into service over its freshly minted 4G airwaves – at least not by mobile industry standards. Shortly after the FCC gave its blessing for AT&T to launch mobile broadband in the previously useless 2.3 GHz band, AT&T wrote in its public policy blog it could have a network up by the end of 2015.

From the blog post:

“While we have not yet seen the final Order, we anticipate that the service rules adopted today will permit deployment of LTE technologies in the WCS band while ensuring that satellite radio services are protected from unreasonable interference.  AT&T took real risks to develop this under-utilized band and is committed to devoting the resources necessary to unlock its full potential.  We expect to commence deployment of LTE infrastructure in the band in as early as three years, allowing us to enhance our wireless broadband services.  Our customers will also win, as additional spectrum capacity becomes available to support surging mobile Internet usage.”

In the fast-paced world of tech three years may seem like an eternity, but in the plodding world of telecom, three years is the flap of a hummingbird’s wings. AT&T has to get the Wireless Communications Services (WCS) band approved for LTE use by the standards bodies, it has to buy up many of the remaining WCS licenses it doesn’t already own, and it has to secure commitments from equipment vendors and handset makers to build gear and phones for the new band. After that it presumably has to test that gear to ensure that it doesn’t interfere with Sirius XM’s satellite radio signals – problems that have prevented AT&T from using those airwaves for more than a decade.

To be honest, AT&T can probably take care of all of that in a year or two, but carriers don’t like to be pinned down to specific timelines. For instance, when the FCC tried to impose on Dish Network a three-year deadline launching LTE in its satellite spectrum, Dish insisted it couldn’t get even a modest network up in fewer than four years, and it fabricated all kinds of technical excuses to support its claims. You’ll notice by AT&T’s wording it isn’t guaranteeing a new network in 2015, but by even suggesting it could move that quickly, AT&T is behaving distinctly un-carrier-like.

Of course, AT&T has plenty of strategic and political reasons for targeting a relatively quick rollout over its new airwaves. AT&T has been lobbying Washington hard for new airwaves, claiming it faces a looming spectrum crisis. If it were to simply sit on its newly 4G-ified airwaves, it would not go over well with regulators and lawmakers, to say nothing of the public policy and consumer advocacy groups that dog the carrier’s every move. Ma Bell at least has to go through the motions.

But AT&T may have legitimate need of this WCS spectrum sooner rather than later. Its current LTE network in the 700 MHz band is constrained in some key markets. While it has backup spectrum in the Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) airwaves, it was forced to part with a lot of those airwaves after its failed merger with T-Mobile. It doesn’t have near enough AWS licenses to double down on 4G capacity nationwide. But as we’ve pointed out in the past, these rejiggered WCS airwaves are AT&T’s best bet for building a consistent, high-capacity 4G network coast to coast — something it’s never had the luxury of doing until now.

Image courtesy of Flickr user kaibara87.

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