Blog

AT&T’s push for LTE airwaves: The rich get richer

My colleague Kevin Fitchard is reporting that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has approved AT&T’s plan to rejigger its Wireless Communications Services spectrum to support LTE. Fitchard provides some great technical insight here, but the bottom line is that the WCS spectrum is inefficient (or even worthless) for modern cellular use. AT&T has been acquiring WCS licenses across the country in the hopes that it will get the FCC’s blessing to operate 20 MHz of airwaves in the 2.3 GHz band for a new LTE network.

But AT&T’s plan has come under fire from the Competitive Carrier Association (which until last week was known as the Rural Carrier Association), and I think the CCA has a good point here: Spectrum is a finite resource, and AT&T and Verizon Wireless continue to compile vast amounts of it. Meanwhile, smaller carriers — including both regional and national operators — have fewer and fewer options available to deploy 4G. While a few companies may be looking to sell their unused spectrum (Dish Network is the most obvious example here), those airwaves are getting pricier by the day.

The nation’s two biggest operators have had a huge head start in deploying LTE (especially Verizon), and now they’re compiling airwaves for future 4G services even as their smaller counterparts scramble to bring their first LTE markets online. The FCC needs to be very careful here to ensure that spectrum hoarding doesn’t create a duopoly — which is exactly the scenario the FCC had in mind when it spiked AT&T’s proposed acquisition of T-Mobile.