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T-Mobile's latest 5G spectrum purchases stuck in limbo

The FCC's congressional authority to auction spectrum lapsed for the first time ever earlier this month, which is preventing the agency from authorizing T-Mobile's latest 2.5GHz purchases.

Mike Dano

March 20, 2023

3 Min Read
T-Mobile's latest 5G spectrum purchases stuck in limbo

According to the financial analysts at New Street Research, T-Mobile isn't able to access the 2.5GHz spectrum it purchased in an FCC auction last year. However, the analysts argued the delay is only temporary, and T-Mobile will likely get access to the spectrum licenses by the end of this year.

"We don't think T-Mobile will be able to get a court to force the FCC to issue the licenses prior to the auction authority being reestablished," the analysts wrote in a note to investors over the weekend.

At issue is the FCC's congressional authority to auction spectrum – that power is required for the agency to transfer spectrum ownership. The FCC's auction authority lapsed for the first time ever earlier this month amid a widening battle in Congress over how to handle the 3.1GHz-3.45GHz spectrum band. That band pits the US military and the US wireless industry directly against each other because the US military currently operates radar in the 3.1GHz-3.45GHz band, but the wireless industry wants to get access to the band for 5G. The FCC's spectrum auction authority is being used as a bargaining chip as each side of the 3.1GHz-3.45GHz debate works to generate support in Washington, DC.

Figure 1: (Source: Inge Johnsson/Alamy Stock Photo) (Source: Inge Johnsson/Alamy Stock Photo)

"While we are confident Congress will eventually reestablish the FCC's legal authority, it may not be until the back half of this year, if then," the New Street analysts wrote.

T-Mobile didn't immediately respond to a question from Light Reading on its 2.5GHz spectrum and the FCC's auction authority.

For its part, T-Mobile walked away with the vast majority of the 2.5GHz spectrum licenses up for grabs in the FCC's recent auction, which ended late last year.

The operator spent $304 million in the auction, and it won 90% of all the licenses sold, or 7,156 of the 7,872 total licenses that received winning bids. The auction offered up a total of 8,017 licenses in mostly rural locations around the country, but not all of those licenses received winning bids.

As noted by FierceWireless, the FCC late last year granted its first batch of 2.5GHz licenses, but T-Mobile was not among the recipients. That's not a surprise though considering the FCC often allocates spectrum licenses on a piecemeal basis as it works through company applications.

In a release last year, T-Mobile said it would use the new 2.5GHz licenses to expand its speedy midband 5G network to more people in rural areas. The company noted that the licenses that it won in the auction – dubbed Auction 108 by the FCC – cover a total of 81 million people.

T-Mobile, of course, has built much of its 5G strategy on the 2.5GHz spectrum licenses it acquired through its $26 billion purchase of Sprint that closed in 2020.

However, 2.5GHz isn't T-Mobile's only 5G spectrum. The company has also deployed 5G across its vast 600MHz holdings, and has already started refarming its 1900MHz PCS spectrum for 5G. Later this year, the company has said it will also begin refarming its AWS spectrum for 5G.

Finally, T-Mobile has said it will start adding its C-band and 3.45GHz spectrum holdings into its 5G network sometime next year.

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

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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