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Is There Really a Spectrum Shortage?

Dan Jones
12/14/2012
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11:20 AM -- It's been a busy week in the continuing race to grab precious wireless spectrum in the U.S.

Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) revealed a $2 billion bid for control of Clearwire LLC (Nasdaq: CLWR)'s nationwide 2.6GHz spectrum. Dish Network LLC (Nasdaq: DISH) got clearance to use AWS-4 spectrum for an LTE network. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) , meanwhile, says it will open up 100MHz of 3.5GHz radar spectrum for small cells and sharing.

The Clearwire deal in particular, which has CNN Money declaring Sprint a would-be spectrum king, gets me wondering if it's really necessary to talk about a spectrum crunch for the big three carriers in the U.S. at the moment.

Consider these points:

If Sprint wins Clearwire it will get access to average holdings of 160MHz in the 2.5GHz-2.6GHz band in the top 100 U.S. markets. (See Clearwire: What 4G Spectrum Shortage? and Sprint Wants to Buy Clearwire Outright for $2.1B.)

As Karl Bode over at DSL Reports pointed out in November, AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) didn't really need to acquire T-Mobile US Inc. , which it said it did to complete its Long Term Evolution (LTE) rollout to 300 million people, after all. (See AT&T Puts Up $14B to Boost Broadband and Big AT&T & T-Mobile 4G Buildout Ahead?)

In fact, AT&T has been busy buying up spectrum and getting the FCC to agree to open up the WCS band for its use later this decade. (See Sprint Could Make Millions Selling WCS to AT&T.)

Verizon Wireless , meanwhile, said in March that without its AWS spectrum swap with cable companies this year, it feared a spectrum shortfall on its 700MHz C-Block network in some markets by 2013. In order to get the AWS spectrum, though, it has agreed to sell off some 700MHz spectrum in the A- and B-Block. (See Verizon Fears 4G Spectrum Shortfall and Verizon CFO: Spectrum Sale to 'Play Out' in Q1.)

So it seems to me what we're really seeing is jockeying by AT&T, Verizon and Sprint to get good amounts of spectrum that best suit their commercial and strategic interests.

Now, I know that access to spectrum is a very real concern for smaller players in the market. In fact, I think we could see even more smaller carriers rolled up by the big guys to add subscribers and spectrum in 2013 and beyond.

Of course, as with oil and any other finite resource, a spectrum crunch is inevitable eventually, particularly as tablets and other data-hungry devices eat up more of the shared bandwidth on a network.

Small cells, spectrum sharing, smart antennas and software-defined radio (SDR) should all -- hopefully -- help us manage and stretch out wireless capacity in the future.

For now, however, it doesn't seem to me that the big three carriers in the U.S. are in danger of falling off a bandwidth cliff just yet.

What do you think?

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Light Reading Mobile

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Jeff Baumgartner
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Jeff Baumgartner,
User Rank: Light Beer
1/10/2013 | 4:00:09 AM
re: Is There Really a Spectrum Shortage?


That cost of entrance barrier is the sort of thing Dish faces, whether it will admit to it or not.  Wonder how long before this spectrum king in the making tries to annex Dish's holdings. JB

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