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In Oklahoma, T-Mobile suddenly faces a new 5G spectrum landlord

WCO, an investment firm headed by telecom veteran Gary Winnick, has finally scored a victory against T-Mobile. And the development could have significant long-term implications for the operator's midband 5G network.

Specifically, the FCC this week began reviewing the transfer of a 2.5GHz spectrum license to WCO from the Owasso public school district, one of the largest school districts in the state of Oklahoma. T-Mobile is leasing that midband spectrum license for use in its 5G network.

The transfer approval would mean that Winnick's investment firm would own a spectrum license that T-Mobile is renting – essentially making WCO the spectrum landlord for T-Mobile in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The FCC typically takes several weeks to approve such transactions.

A tangled history

WCO has been looking to purchase 2.5GHz spectrum licenses since the FCC changed its rules for the spectrum band in 2020. Prior to the FCC's rule change, only educational institutions – such as schools, universities and churches – could own 2.5GHz licenses.

As a result, telecom operators like T-Mobile were forced to ink long-term leases on those licenses in order to use them for 5G and other wireless services. Indeed, T-Mobile's speedy midband 5G network – which currently covers around 225 million people – is built on top of around 2,000 such leases with educational institutions all over the country.

T-Mobile touts extensive 2.5GHz coverage. (Source: T-Mobile)
T-Mobile touts extensive 2.5GHz coverage.
(Source: T-Mobile)

The FCC's rule change for the band in 2020 was specifically intended to eliminate that leasing complexity. The change allowed schools, universities and other 2.5GHz license owners to sell their licenses outright. As Light Reading previously reported, T-Mobile has acquired more than 200 of those licenses since the FCC changed its rules.

But it's not the only company buying those licenses.

Unlocking value

"WCO was created by individuals with a long and well-regarded history in the telecommunications and finance industries," the company told the FCC. "In the current state of affairs, many EBS [Educational Broadband Service, or 2.5GHz] licensees throughout the country are attempting to manage budget pressures. WCO in its role as telecom investors and education activists are creating an opportunity for EBS licensees to unlock the value of their spectrum while generating value for their constituents. As an investor in wireless spectrum, WCO unlocks additional value for the EBS licensees."

WCO has been offering millions of dollars to educational institutions across the country to buy their 2.5GHz licenses. For example, it has offered $5.5 million for the license owned by the Christian College of Georgia and $7.6 million for the one owned by a school district in St. Lucie County, Florida.

However, T-Mobile has moved to block WCO's efforts, arguing in part that WCO is a competitor and that the terms of its leases do not allow license sales to competitors.

But WCO appears to have finally eked out a win against T-Mobile. This week, the company successfully filed an application to purchase the Owasso public school district's 2.5GHz license, covering Tulsa. The company declined to say how much it paid for the license. According to spectrum-tracking company AllNet Insights & Analytics, T-Mobile has a lease on the license that expires in 2024.

"Owasso will assign its rights and obligations under the lease to WCO. The lease provides T-Mobile access to spectrum to utilize as part of its cutting-edge broadband service offerings to the people of Tulsa," WCO told the FCC. "Assignment of the license raises no competitive or other public interest concerns."

WCO and T-Mobile declined to discuss what might be the terms of their new relationship. However, it's very likely that T-Mobile would pay WCO, considering the Christian College of Georgia gets $55,000 a year from T-Mobile under their leasing agreement for a license covering Gainesville, Georgia.

Where from here?

To be clear, WCO's purchase of the Owasso public school district's license is a very small part of T-Mobile's overall 5G story.

First, T-Mobile's 5G network works on other spectrum bands, including 600MHz, that aren't saddled by outdated ownership rules. Further, T-Mobile will likely continue to attempt to acquire the licenses that it's leasing today – though such an endeavor could get expensive if each of those 2,000 licenses costs several million dollars.

Finally, T-Mobile owns new midband licenses in the C-band (3.7GHz) and the Andromeda band (3.45GHz). Thus, it could potentially let its lease in Tulsa with WCO expire and instead use its C-band and Andromeda band holdings to cover the city with 5G.

Related posts:

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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