BARCELONA -- MWC19 -- T-Mobile has no real interest in freeing up more mid-band spectrum for 5G -- at least right now.
That's the argument reiterated this week by Intelsat CEO Stephen Spengler (and one that T-Mobile disputes). Spengler said that T-Mobile instead wants to make sure that the C-Band is tied up in regulatory limbo while it works to close its proposed merger with Sprint.
T-Mobile's latest C-Band proposal "is unworkable and an attempt to delay," Spengler told Light Reading on the sidelines of the Mobile World Congress trade show here.
And the reason T-Mobile is pushing its unworkable C-Band proposal is because "they have a timing problem," he added.
The debate over the future of the C-Band started last year, when the FCC agreed to look into whether it would be able to free up some spectrum in the 3.7GHz-4.2GHz C-Band for 5G. Such spectrum has been lauded as ideal for 5G networks as it straddles the line between capacity and coverage. The band is currently being used by satellite companies to transmit video to TV distributors; Intelsat and SES are the two companies that transmit fully 95% of all data through C-Band spectrum that is shared among satellite companies and others.
Thus, it came as no surprise last year that a group of satellite companies including Intelsat and SES formed a group to free up roughly 200MHz of the total 500MHz in the C-Band for sale to wireless network operators and others for 5G. According to the group, the C-Band Alliance (CBA), it is satellite companies that would be the best stewards of the release of the spectrum because they are currently using it, and would be best able to handle the changes to the video systems using the band that would be made necessary as part of any spectrum sale.
And that's when T-Mobile threw a wrench into the process. The nation's third-largest wireless provider argued that the CBA shouldn't handle the sale of the spectrum, and that the FCC should instead step in and dole out C-Band licenses in a more traditional spectrum auction with federal oversight.
Each side of the issue garnered support: AT&T and Verizon generally sided with the CBA, while players like Charter and Google generally sided with T-Mobile.
Earlier this month, T-Mobile issued a revised version of its proposal, calling for the FCC to conduct a reverse auction of the C-Band, similar to the reverse auction it conducted for the 600MHz licenses that TV broadcasters opted to sell off in 2017.
But Intelsat's CEO, Spengler, said that T-Mobile's latest proposal is just another attempt by the company to buy time while it works to reach a conclusion in its merger proposal with Sprint. He explained that T-Mobile stands to gain a significant amount of mid-band spectrum through a merger with Sprint, and therefore it wants to delay the release of other mid-band spectrum like the C-Band until the merger process is complete.
If T-Mobile successfully merges with Sprint, then it may no longer be interested in acquiring spectrum in the C-Band, and would therefore want to block others from getting their own mid-band spectrum. But if regulators block T-Mobile's merger with Sprint, as some analysts expect, then T-Mobile may turn to the C-Band to gain the mid-band spectrum it wouldn't get through a Sprint merger.
Thus, Spengler argued that T-Mobile is simply looking to delay the release of C-Band spectrum until it knows what's happening with its Sprint merger.
Spengler made similar comments during Intelsat's recent quarterly conference call with analysts, laying out an extensive argument as to why T-Mobile's latest proposal was mostly unworkable. He said T-Mobile's proposal would lead to delays in releasing C-Band spectrum for 5G. (Spengler said the CBA's proposal would release C-Band spectrum within 18-36 months.)
Not surprisingly, T-Mobile has vociferously pushed back against Intelsat's position. In numerous filings with the FCC, T-Mobile has strongly argued that its proposal would quickly release spectrum in a fair and open auction process.
It's unclear how the FCC might ultimately rule on the C-Band issue. Analysts generally believe the CBA's proposal has a significant amount of momentum.