AT&T & Dish fight over spectrum, but will either build a network?

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Report after report points to AT&T marrying Dish Network after Ma Bell’s forced breakup with T-Mobile, but given the companies’ increasing belligerence, you wouldn’t think that was the case.

AT&T is petitioning the Federal Communications Commission to impose network buildout conditions on Dish’s satellite spectrum –- requirements that would be passed onto AT&T if it acquired the satellite TV provider. Meanwhile, Dish insists it plans to use that spectrum to build a commercial LTE network to challenge the reigning nationwide mobile operators, including AT&T. These are hardly the actions of two companies about to tie the knot.

What we’re witnessing here is some very cynical pre-nuptial gamesmanship. According to TMF Associates satellite communications analyst Tim Farrar, Dish is playing AT&T off its competitors by threatening to partner with MetroPCS to build a nationwide LTE network over its satellite broadband and 700 MHz spectrum. To muck up Dish’s plans, AT&T is insisting to the FCC that the satellite TV provider face the same strict rollout requirements the commission imposed on fellow satellite spectrum holder LightSquared: An LTE rollout covering 100 million people in 33 months and 260 million in less than 6 years.

As Farrar wrote in his blog:

This submission is a blatant attempt by AT&T to put a thumb on the scales, as the FCC weighs up the appropriate balance between buildout mandates and clawback of any windfall. The reason for AT&T’s action at this very late stage in the process appears to be that DISH is trying to play off AT&T’s prospective bid against a potential venture with MetroPCS. MetroPCS would certainly be unwilling to commit to a 260M POP buildout, so if the FCC conceded AT&T’s demands, they would be the only game in town and DISH would lose its leverage in price negotiations. We’ll find out soon enough if AT&T’s gambit succeeds, but few would bet against [Dish chairman] Charlie Ergen’s poker playing skills after the events of the last year.

AT&T may seem like the bad guy here, but Dish’s motives are just as suspect. In an FCC filling Thursday, Dish maintained it plans become a competing mobile operator, launching an LTE network that would compete with the big 4:

The overly aggressive and unrealistic schedule AT&T advocates would likely set DISH up for failure or force DISH into unfavorable business arrangements with large Commercial Mobile Radio Service (“CMRS”) carriers.  It would erect artificial barriers to DISH’s plan to construct a new mobile broadband network on its own or consideration of partnerships with smaller companies, and could threaten DISH’s ability to roll out a retail service.  In short, an impracticably tight schedule would be a triple loss for consumers, the Commission, and DISH.

But as my colleague Stacey Higginbotham wrote when Dish first applied for permission to build LTE, Dish’s proposal sounds more like a financial gamble to cash in on the skyrocketing value of mobile broadband spectrum, rather than a legitimate bid to become a wireless competitor. One big clue is Dish’s insistence on deploying an LTE-Advanced network in order to “enter the market for the first time with the most advanced technology.” Of course, LTE-Advanced was just finalized as a standard so Dish claims it will have to wait several years before commercial equipment is available.

That’s absolute malarkey. LTE-Advanced is an iteration of LTE technology, not a completely new network. Claiming that you must wait until LTE-Advanced equipment is available before building a network is kind of like insisting you can’t move into a house before the shag carpeting is installed. There’s nothing stopping Dish from building an LTE network this year and evolving it into an LTE-Advanced network in 2013 or 2014.

Supposedly we face a spectrum crisis, but no one is acting like it. Instead of using public airwaves to deploy real networks, operators seem to be playing high-stakes poker with their licenses. AT&T’s motives may be self-serving, but maybe in this case it’s right. If it forces strict rollout guidelines on Dish’s spectrum and then buys those licenses, we may actually get a new mobile broadband network – rather than a bunch of operators whining about how they don’t have the spectrum to build them.

Poker Image courtesy of Flickr user Ross Elliott
Tower Image courtesy of Flickr user Nikhil Verma

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