The fight for low-band spectrum in the US is heating up, with T-Mobile appealing to US consumers to help fight its battle and working to block AT&T's own spectrum acquisition efforts.
T-Mobile US Inc. has put out videos this week asking smartphone owners to petition the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to amend its rules for the upcoming 600 MHz spectrum auction to give small carriers -- T-Mobile included -- more than 30MHz of reserved low-band spectrum, so that it stands a chance bidding against the big two, AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Verizon Wireless .
The self-proclaimed uncarrier has been banging this drum for awhile, protesting what it sees as the big two dominance of spectrum in the US. Most recently, it tried two approaches to get consumers to care about the spectrum that supports their wireless experience: a not-atypical profanity-leaden message from T-Mobile CEO John Legere and a more kid-friendly cartoon. Watch both below. (See T-Mobile Boss Asks Consumers to Pressure FCC on Low-Band.)
At the same time, T-Mobile is petitioning the FCC to block AT&T's attempt to acquire spectrum from West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio, noting that "the competitive harms resulting from the proposed transaction greatly outweigh any potential benefits AT&T has or could advance." Essentially, T-Mobile believes the deals would give AT&T too much spectrum in those regions.
AT&T shot back in a statement that it needs the spectrum to build out a 10×10 MHz LTE network in these markets, and that T-Mobile's "disdain for rural investment has long been evident." T-Moblie could be investing in rural America on its own, AT&T claims, but has chosen instead to focus on currying favor with the FCC and attacking AT&T.
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Low-band spectrum is particularly valuable because of its propagation characteristics that make it well suited for rural and indoor coverage, areas where T-Mobile has struggled. T-Mobile says it will expand to cover 300M POPs by the end of 2015, including in rural areas. It maintains it needs the spectrum to improve its coverage there, although it has admitted in the past that its priority is improving the density of its network in urban environments. (See Q&A: The Castle in T-Mobile's LTE Network and T-Mobile: Going Bananas for Low-Band .)
Interestingly, Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) President Steven Berry told Light Reading at the Big Telecom Event that T-Mobile is "still trying to figure out how to best partner with small carriers." Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) is working with the CCA on forming roaming relationships with rural operators to expand its coverage. T-Mobile was thought to be a likely next partner as it would give it a relatively easy way to expand its rural presence, but the carrier has yet to work out a formal agreement. (See Sprint Might Sit Out 600MHz Spectrum Auction and Sprint Joins Forces With Rural America on LTE.)
It will be up to the FCC to decide if it buys T-Mobile's argument that it needs special access to the low-band spectrum, or whether it sides with AT&T. Maximizing its own revenue-earning potential from the auction and balancing broadcasters' concerns with vacating the spectrum will be important considerations for it as well, of course. (See Hey Big Spenders! AT&T, Dish & VZ Splash Cash on Spectrum and FCC Chief: Keep Spectrum Open for Smaller Carriers.)
"No single party will be happy with everything we've done, but the final product is a balanced solution to a challenging situation with more moving parts than a Swiss watch," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler wrote in a statement last week.
— Sarah Thomas, , Editorial Operations Director, Light Reading