5G and Beyond

AT&T Is Collecting Lots of 700MHz Spectrum Licenses, Possibly for 5G

AT&T has been snapping up low-band spectrum licenses in locations across the country, actions that could indicate the operator is working to flesh out its low-band holdings for a forthcoming 5G service.

AT&T's latest spectrum deal is with C Spire, a regional wireless network operator based in Mississippi with around 1 million mobile customers. AT&T is requesting FCC approval to acquire 700MHz, PCS, and AWS-1 spectrum from C Spire in locations ranging from Mississippi to Alabama, Florida, Tennessee and Arkansas.

The financial terms of that transaction were not disclosed in the operators' FCC filing for the transaction, and operators generally do not discuss the details, including the financial elements, of their spectrum strategies outside of Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

"By acquiring the spectrum, AT&T will be able to increase its system capacity to enhance existing services, better accommodate AT&T's overall growth, and facilitate the provision of additional products and services in the affected areas," AT&T wrote in its FCC application for the transaction with C Spire. "AT&T thus will be better able to meet the needs of new and existing subscribers by offering improved, more robust, and more advanced services."

However, as noted by Brian Goemmer of spectrum tracking company Allnet Insights & Analytics, AT&T's transaction with C Spire is just the latest in a long line of transactions the company has made to gain new 700MHz B and C Band spectrum licenses in locations throughout South Dakota, Texas, Colorado and Utah. As Goemmer noted, AT&T in recent months has purchased 700MHz spectrum from the likes of NE Colorado Cellular, Central Texas Telephone Investments and FBS 700.

Goemmer said the transactions generally have helped AT&T increase its channel size in the lower 700MHz band from 5x5MHz to 10x10MHz -- meaning, AT&T generally already owned some 700MHz licenses in those areas, but is moving to acquire more 700MHz licenses. The more spectrum it owns, the more customers it can support and the faster speeds it can provide.

"The proposed transaction with C Spire continues the same trend," Goemmer said. "Where AT&T is acquiring the 700MHz A band spectrum from C Spire they will have 15x15MHz channel size. This is likely part of AT&T's low-band 5G strategy, carrying LTE traffic on their FirstNet spectrum, with a 5G network deployed on their lower 700MHz spectrum."

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AT&T, of course, is racing to deploy 5G across a variety of spectrum bands in a growing number of cities, and has pledged to take 5G nationwide by early next year. Specifically, AT&T is deploying 5G on its 39GHz millimeter-wave spectrum licenses in just over a dozen cities, and has said it will use its "sub 6GHz" spectrum to deploy 5G nationwide. That makes sense considering low-band spectrum can cover wide geographic areas.

However, AT&T officials have declined to say exactly what spectrum bands below 6GHz the operator might use to deploy 5G.

Thus, AT&T's newfound appetite for 700MHz spectrum could well indicate the operator will use 700MHz spectrum as part of its nationwide 5G push. (Some industry insiders recently speculated that AT&T would use its 850MHz spectrum for its 5G push. The operator could ultimately use several different bands for its 5G efforts.)

AT&T isn't the only operator using low-band spectrum for 5G. T-Mobile too has said it will deploy 5G nationwide using its 600MHz spectrum holdings.

AT&T's 5G push in 700MHz likely will sit outside of its efforts to deploy FirstNet's 700MHz spectrum. AT&T won a contract in 2017 to access 20MHz of FirstNet's 700MHz spectrum holdings, but that spectrum is primarily intended to be used for a nationwide LTE network for first-responders like police and firefighters.

Of course, a 5G network won't generate revenues without devices that can connect to it. AT&T is currently selling the Netgear Nighthawk 5G Mobile Hotspot for its 39GHz 5G network, and has said it will soon offer several 5G capable smartphones to its lineup as well.

At the recent Mobile World Congress trade show a number of smartphone vendors showed off new 5G phones, including Xiaomi (Mi Mix 3 5G), LG (V50 ThinQ), Samsung (Galaxy S10 5G), Huawei (Mate X), ZTE (Axon 10 Pro 5G) and others.

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

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