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FCC signs off on AT&T’s massive 4G spectrum buy

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AT&T’s(s t) plan to create a new 4G band using long-neglected airwaves is starting to take final shape. On Tuesday it got approval from the Federal Communications Commission to buy up the 2.3 GHz Wireless Communications Service (WCS) airwaves owned by NextWave, Comcast(s cmsca), Horizon, and San Diego Gas and Electric.

Those licenses cover 82 percent of the U.S. population in the contiguous 48 states, and, combined with AT&T’s current extensive WCS holdings, would give AT&T control over most of the band. There are only a handful of other WCS holders of any note – Sprint(s s) being one – but you can expect AT&T to approach those operators in coming months because gaining complete control of the band is core to AT&T’s plans.

No trespassingFor its long history WCS has been useless for mobile services due to interference issues with nearby satellite radio bands, which today are used solely by Sirius XM(s siri). Earlier this year AT&T and Sirius developed a technical workaround that would allow the two companies to coexist at 2.3 GHz. The catch was that AT&T had to turn the portion of that spectrum bordering on Sirius’s frequencies into a “guard band” over which no cellular signal could pass.

From AT&T’s perspective less usable spectrum is better than no usable spectrum. The FCC approved the new band plan in October, but that still left AT&T with the task of picking up all of the WCS licenses it didn’t own. There are a lot of licensees with spectrum in the new guard band, making their frequencies officially worthless. AT&T had to buy them out.

The end result will be impressive. It will get a 20 MHz swathe of 4G bandwidth nationwide, something it was never able to cobble together at 700 MHz. It will take some time before it can feasibly deploy a network in its newly minted band. It has to get it accepted by the international standards bodies, it needs to convince network equipment and device makers to build 2.3 GHz gear, and it needs to test that gear. But AT&T is saying it could get a network up as early as 2015, which in a carrier terms is actually quite quickly.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock user Nicolas Raymond

3 Responses to “FCC signs off on AT&T’s massive 4G spectrum buy”

  1. Mike williams

    Kevin is pretty much 100 percent correct with his assessment. This deal will put AT&T into a pretty good spectrum position and give them basically a nationwide band that they didn’t have before with the 700 spectrum. It will be a while before they have phones with the proper chips, standards and approvals etc in order to utilize the band. 2015 sounds like a good timeframe to start seeing the benefits of this band.

  2. Brian Goemmer

    Kevin: I take two issues with this article. First, “massive” spectrum buy seems an significant exaggeration. A spectrum buy that only nets the next channel of LTE growth would actually seem to be a “budget” buy. Massive would seem to be more appropriate for Sprint’s spectrum purchase, which nets roughly 160MHz of spectrum versus 20MHz of spectrum. My second issue is more of a technical point….AT&T doesn’t get a 20MHz swathe of 4G bandwidth, it gets 2 – 10MHz swathes of bandwidth. They will only be able to launch a 10×10 FDD-LTE channel on the spectrum. A 20MHz swathe of either FDD or TDD spectrum would be much better for AT&T.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Brian, I accept the criticism in the spirit it was given, but I do believe you are nitpicking.

      First off. Getting 20 MHz of a nationwide band is a very big deal. If we used your definition, every spectrum deal compared Sprint-Clearwire would be tiny: Verizon’s original 700 MHz auction win, the cableco deal, etc. The fact is AT&T will get a nationwide 4G band where it never had one before. It will be able to use that spectrum to launch much higher bandwidth LTE networks than it currently has in places like Chicago and LA. I consider that significant.

      Second, 10 + 10 = 20. I realize they are not contiguous channels — and perhaps you are only disagreeing with my use of the word “swathe” — but that level of technical detail isn’t necessary for what is essentially an update post on an ongoing news story. If you like, feel free to click through the links where delve into all of that. But for the fact that AT&T is getting 20 MHz of usable spectrum is really what’s important here.